Independence Day

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It is customary this holiday week to remind ourselves why the American colonies declared their independence from Britain some 240 years ago. The Declaration of Independence provides the answer in the form a list of tyrannical acts attributed to King George III. Among their grievances, the authors cited the “swarms of Officers” that the King sent out to harass and steal from them, the creation of “arbitrary government” for the purpose of imposing “absolute rule” and the imposition of taxes without their consent. “A Prince” they said, “whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

Recently there was another declaration of independence, this time in the form of the vote by Great Britain to exit from the European Union. Among the reasons given for this vote is unhappiness over EU micromanagement of the UK economy. One source cites EU directives regulating the legal size and freshness of bananas, the electrical conductivity of honey and the pricing of food products like eggs by weight rather than number. Another indicates that there are five EU regulations governing pillow cases, 118 governing shampoo and 210 governing spoons.

These examples do not come close to the gravity of the complaints made by the colonials. There is no George III reigning from Brussels. However, there is a much noted parallel between the sentiments that led to Brexit and those that led to the ascension of Donald Trump. The Brits voted as they did more out of anger about non-EU immigration and Britain’s own economic policies than over EU meddling.

The trouble with anger as a motivation for political change is that it neither seeks nor offers a rational explanation. And when the motivation is anger, democracy becomes a cudgel in the hands of a majority intent on the destruction of the status quo without regard to the consequences.

While Brexit and Trumpism seem to fit this mold, the American Revolution does not. In his acclaimed book, The Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution, historian Bernard Bailyn points out that the Revolution was more than ten years in the making and was proclaimed by the Continental Congress only after an intense public debate, conducted in the pages of hundreds of pamphlets and dozens of newspapers. That debate, says Bailyn, “was the most creative period in the history of American political thought. Everything that followed assumed and built on its results.”

Under Baylin’s interpretation, the particulars concerning the King were provided only to show why the colonials were, by virtue of their carefully thought-out, shared political philosophy, willing to take the extreme course of action they were taking. That philosophy was itself arrived at after a thorough vetting of the issues on the basis of texts dating back to the ancient Greeks. The colonials, by this record, arrived thoughtfully and cautiously at their decision to exit Great Britain. The contrast with contemporary politics in the US and the UK could not be greater.

“The leaders of the Revolutionary movement”, says Bailyn, were concerned “not with the need to recast the social order nor with the problems of economic inequality and the injustices of stratified societies but with the need to purify a corrupt constitution.”

As for democracy, they had mixed feelings. They associated democracy “with the threat of civil disorder and the early assumption of power by a dictator.” The lawyer John Dickinson warned that “a people does not reform with moderation.” As later put by Madison in the Federalist Papers, democracy was prone to the “mischief of factions” and less suited to the American experiment than representative government. “Democracies,” Madison said, “have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property.”

Today’s political cognoscenti are decidedly one-sided when it comes to the virtues of democracy. They are fine with it as long as it works to their liking. Nothing was said when a majority of voters elected a presidential candidate intent on “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” without regard to the implications of his agenda for constitutional order. Bernie Sanders was lauded for his “honesty” in promising a political revolution, which, had it succeeded, would have amounted to a raid on the bank accounts of a small minority of high-income Americans.

However, now that democracy is showing some worrisome signs, there are raised eyebrows in the faculty lounges, boardrooms and pressrooms. Professor Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard attributes the Brexit vote to an ill-informed majority. He would have had the British government impose a much higher bar for exit: It should have been necessary to get two yes votes over two years and then a supermajority of the House of Commons.

Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal observes the irony in the fact that the democratic process that got Trump the nomination will now, in all likelihood, deny him the presidency. As for Brexit, had the British read Edmund Burke rather than Thomas Jefferson, says Stephens, they might have better understood the virtues of “caution and community in political life” and voted differently. This, presumably, is despite Jefferson’s own ambivalence on the subject of majority rule.

The colonials put reason ahead of anger, liberty ahead of democracy. Our problem today is that criticisms of democracy arise only when it leads to some decidedly anti-authoritarian outcome, such as a vote to throw off the yoke of EU meddling in national affairs or a Trump-like challenge to political correctness. What we need is a revolution like the one we had 140 years ago when our nation decided to transform itself only after it had taken the trouble to determine what united it.

David G. Tuerck

David G. Tuerck

David G. Tuerck is professor of economics and executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University. Read his past columns here.