Given that U.S. forces have failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, U.S. officials have focused on an alternative justification for having invaded that country — to free the Iraqi people from tyranny through military force and to establish democracy after the war.
Contrary to popular American opinion, however, neither U.S. military rule nor democracy constitutes freedom.
What does it actually mean to be free? An elementary concept of freedom is the absence of physical restraint. That is, as long as someone isn’t physically restraining you or holding you in a jail cell, you would be considered free under this basic definition of freedom. In fact, that’s the way most people throughout the ages defined freedom.
When we think about the meaning of freedom, it’s usually in the context of analyzing the relationship between the individual and the government under which he lives.
Let’s first assume, though, that a person lives in a country in which there is no government. Can we say that that person is free, given that there is no government to infringe on his freedom?
In a certain sense, yes, because he is able to live his life any way he chooses without government interference. That’s undoubtedly why U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described the immediate situation in Iraq after the U.S. invasion as the “untidiness” of freedom.
But there’s obviously one big problem with that type of “freedom,” as Secretary Rumsfeld and so many others are discovering: There are always big and strong anti-social people in a society — the rapists, murderers, thieves, robbers, and the like — who will prey upon those who are less capable of defending themselves from such thugs.
Fortunately, the thugs usually form only a small minority in a society but in the absence of some sort of coercive mechanism to suppress them, their ability to destroy the freedom of the majority is disproportionately large.
As Thomas Jefferson pointed out, that’s the reason that people form governments — to impose force on the small minority of violent criminals on behalf of the majority of peaceful and law-abiding majority.
What’s important to recognize here is that if, in an ideal world, government’s role is strictly limited to prohibiting and punishing violent behavior, people in that society are free.
In other words, the average peaceful and law-abiding person will be able to do whatever he wants in life — make whatever choices he wishes to make — just as long as he isn’t interfering in some direct and forceful way with the rights of others to do the same.
The fact that the government is punishing only the violent people in society does not affect the freedom of those who are engaging only in nonviolent behavior.
(In analyzing the relationship between freedom and government, however, let’s leave out three important areas, each of which could itself be the subject of extensive discussion:  how that legitimate function of government [preventing and punishing violent behavior] should be funded — voluntarily or through taxation;  government’s legitimate function of providing a court system by which people can peacefully resolve their disputes; and  government’s role in foreign affairs.)
So people can’t be free without government because there are big, violent bullies in the world who would use their disproportionate strength to take away the freedom of everyone else. And therefore, we form a government to take care of those thugs and criminals. So what’s the problem?
The structure of government
The problem, which the Founding Fathers of our country understood so well, is that historically government officials never limit their own powers to punishing the violent wrongdoers. Instead, and oftentimes with the best of intentions, public officials wield their powers in such a way as to make the situation for the people worse than it would be without any government at all.
We’re referring, of course, to tyranny. And history has shown that tyranny comes in both horrific forms and benign forms. But tyranny is tyranny, and no form of tyranny, not even the benign type, is freedom.
How should government be structured? That is, how should government officials be selected and what powers should they have?
One method of selection, of course, is the democratic vote. It’s the process by which the citizens vote for the people they want to wield the political power.
Now, contrary to popular opinion, especially in the United States, a democratic process does not necessarily result in the smartest, wisest, most ethical, most honest, most compassionate people’s being in public office.
In fact, oftentimes the democratic process gives rise to cruel and brutal people who just happen to be good at playing the democratic game. One of the best historical examples of course, would be Adolf Hitler.
Thus, democracy — in and of itself — does not guarantee freedom, especially if the person who wins has the power to enslave the citizenry. For example, suppose the slaves in the Old South had the right to vote not only for their government representatives but also for their plantation overseers. Would they have been considered free?
In fact, that’s the reason that some Latin Americans view their quadrennial presidential elections as nothing more than the opportunity to elect their dictator. While they are free to vote and elect anyone they want, they know that once the election is over, the ruler has omnipotent power over them.
So if democracy doesn’t guarantee freedom and if oftentimes it brings brutes to power, what good is it? As Ludwig von Mises observed, the only real advantage to democracy, albeit an important one, is that it provides people with the opportunity to change directions peacefully, as compared with having to carry out a violent revolution to oust a non-democratically elected regime.
Therefore, regardless of how public officials are selected, the real issue with respect to freedom is the nature and extent of the powers that they have once they assume office. The reason, again, is that if an elected official has the power to enslave people, it doesn’t really matter, from the standpoint of freedom, whether he’s democratically elected or not.
Thus, the question arises: Assuming that the existence of government is critical to ensure freedom, how do we ensure that those who are elected to public office do not wield dictatorial powers, even if they wield them benevolently?
Limiting government power
The answer our Founders came up with was one of the most ingenious and effective political devices ever developed — the U.S. Constitution, one of the most remarkable documents ever written by man, especially considering its spirit and purposes.
The Constitution had a dual purpose. Its first purpose was to call into existence the federal government. Its second purpose was equally important: to limit the powers of government officials to prevent them from becoming tyrants and exercising tyrannical powers over us.
Students are often taught in U.S. public schools that our rights come from the Constitution. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. As Thomas Jefferson pointed out in the Declaration of Independence, our rights preexist government — they come from “Nature and … Nature’s God.”
The reason people establish governments is to protect the exercise of those preexisting rights. The question, again, is, How do we ensure that the government that is called into existence to protect people’s rights doesn’t become the destroyer of those rights? That concern weighed heavily on the minds of our Founding Fathers.
Keep in mind also that the original Constitution had no Bill of Rights. Why would the Framers omit such important restrictions on government powers in the original document?
The reason is that, unlike so many people today, they correctly construed the document as one that granted powers to the government, not one that granted rights to the people.
Thus, the inquiry for our ancestors was not, “Does the Constitution grant this particular right to the people?” but instead, “Does the Constitution grant this particular power to the government.”
The powers of the government, therefore, were limited — limited to those enumerated in the original document.
That was why the original crafters of the Constitution saw no need for a bill of rights (or, more accurately, a bill of prohibitions). Since the original document did not grant the power to interfere with freedom of speech, for example, the government would not be authorized to exercise it.
That wasn’t good enough for our ancestors, however. They didn’t trust people with political power, not even George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the other Founders. They demanded express restrictions on government powers to interfere with the people’s fundamental rights and civil liberties.
The Bill of Prohibitions
That’s how we got the first ten amendments to the Constitution; our ancestors would not agree to letting the federal government come into existence without a commitment to enact those amendments soon after the Constitution was approved by the state conventions.
Read the First Amendment carefully. Note that it does not grant people freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or freedom of religion. Instead, it prohibits the government from interfering with those fundamental rights.
That distinction is critically important because the U.S. Constitution, unlike those of other countries, recognizes that our rights do not come from government or the document that created it, but instead preexist both of them.
Thus the government cannot legitimately take away that which it has not given.
The First Amendment recognizes different aspects of human freedom, and all of them bear on the relationship between the individual and the government: the right to worship, the right to publish and speak out, the right to read whatever one wishes, the right to associate with others (or not), the right to peaceably assemble, and the right to petition government for redress of grievances.
Notice that most of these rights would exist whether government exists or not. The reason for the express bill of prohibitions is that our ancestors wanted to protect themselves (and us) not only from government officials but also from themselves (and ourselves). That is, they knew that in the heat of passion and crisis, democracy can result in the worst forms of tyranny.
Notice that the Second Amendment prohibits the government from interfering with the right of the people to own weapons, another right that exists independently of whether government exists or not.
The Third Amendment reflects the Framers’ fear of standing armies.
The Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments detail the rights of the people when the government goes after violent, anti-social human beings. In other words, while we want government to have the power to prevent and punish violent behavior, we don’t want it to use that power wrongfully against innocent people. That’s why the Framers made provision against that contingency by expressly including those amendments.
The Seventh Amendment enshrines the guarantee of jury trials in civil cases.
The Eighth Amendment guarantees reasonable bail for criminal suspects, the idea being, again, that while we want government to go after the violent criminals, we don’t want it using its power to indefinitely incarcerate the innocent.
The Ninth Amendment reminds us that this is not an exhaustive list of people’s rights — that even though a right is not listed (such as the right to privacy or to be left alone) it doesn’t follow that it doesn’t exist.
The Tenth Amendment clarifies that if a power is not expressly granted to the federal government, it is reserved to the state governments or the people.
We can sum up by integrating the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution: We are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, and these include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In order to ensure the exercise of these rights, the Framers instituted the federal government. In order to ensure that the federal government did not use its power to violate these rights, they approved the Constitution, which granted the government enumerated powers.
To make certain that public officials clearly understood that their powers were limited to those enumerated in the Constitution, our ancestors required the adoption of the express restrictions on power known as the Bill of Rights.
Before we analyze whether the Iraqi people are indeed free, however, let’s examine a critically important aspect of freedom that is oftentimes forgotten: economic liberty.