Montgomery’s indignant black leaders resolved to stage a bus boycott to challenge the segregation rules, and they posted flyers setting the protest for the start of the week. On Monday morning, the buses rolled without their normal crowd of black passengers. But the leaders’ rivalries complicated the choice of a captain to steer the movement forward. Why not try our new Baptist preacher, one suggested—fresh, pleasant, and unaligned? Accordingly, 26-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., with 20 minutes to prepare, was almost literally thrust upon the stage of world history. Continue reading
Features May 2021
On the erosion of American freedoms.
by Myron Magnet
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs the Social Security Bill, August 14, 1935. Photo: Library of Congress.
To gauge how unbridgeable the gulf is that divides the American Left from the Right, rewind to February 19, 2009, when those who eventually elected Donald Trump first made their voices heard. As Washington jury-rigged fixes for the Great Financial Crisis, the CNBC broadcaster Rick Santelli shouted across the Chicago Mercantile Exchange floor, “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” The Merc traders roared their televised veto across the land.
Their cry was more visceral than a policy disagreement. The traders, self-made men, had worked hard for what they had and scorned having their taxes hiked to save homebuyers with imprudently high mortgages from foreclosure. “This is America!” Santelli urged, and what the new Obama administration was doing was un-American. Didn’t the Founding Fathers establish the federal government to guarantee one’s freedom to better one’s condition, and to protect the property one industriously earns—not to redistribute it?
That’s why Santelli added that he was planning a Chicago Tea Party, an update of Boston’s 1773 event. He and the traders felt the same outrage George Washington had felt about the Stamp Act and the tea tax: it was as lawless as Parliament picking his pocket. To the new-era Tea Partiers, taxation for redistribution, rather than for common purposes, is tyranny, not government by consent.
But, though the traders and Tea Partiers didn’t quite understand it, the federal government long ago had turned from the shield of individual liberty into a vast engine of redistribution. That transformation could occur because the Framers’ Constitution was body-snatched by the doctrine of the “living constitution,” which—as Woodrow Wilson first formulated it—saw the Supreme Court sitting as a permanent Constitutional Convention, making up laws as it went along, heedless of the 1787 scheme’s checks. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal used Wilson’s doctrine as a license to remake America’s economy and society. Once the Supreme Court buckled to FDR’s threat to pack it and started voting his way, the justices allowed an utterly foreign governmental structure to devour the Framers’ republic from within, until it broke out of the shell as something altogether different. Continue reading
Reparations for slavery, you say? Well, we tried that experiment, in the $20-plus trillion spent on welfare, Medicaid, housing, and food stamps for the mostly minority poor since Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty in 1964. As Amity Shlaes shows in her cautionary Great Society: A New History, those trillions only made matters worse. As the clamor swells to compound LBJ’s mistake, Shlaes provides a sobering postmortem, dissecting how and why, when government presumes to reshape society, the result is likely to be gory.
It took LBJ a lifetime to learn that lesson, and he learned it the hard way. He began his government career as an ardent New Dealer, first as a tireless functionary charged with pressing Texas farmers to limit their crops, on Franklin Roosevelt’s cockeyed theory that overproduction caused the Great Depression, and then as one of FDR’s most energetic congressional lieutenants, ramming through New Deal programs—many of doubtful constitutionality. He firmly believed that the New Deal had heroically wielded the power of the federal government to defeat the slump, though as Shlaes showed in her earlier best-selling book, The Forgotten Man (2007), it only prolonged it. Continue reading
Liberty or Equality?
The Founding Fathers knew that you can’t have both.
With the fulminating on the left about inequality—“Fighting inequality is the mission of our times,” as New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, summed up the theme of his postelection powwow with President Barack Obama—it’s worth pausing to admire anew the very different, and very realistic, modesty underlying Thomas Jefferson’s deathless declaration that all men are created equal. We are equal, he went on to explain, in having the same God-given rights that no one can legitimately take away from us. But Jefferson well knew that one of those rights—to pursue our own happiness in our own way—would yield wildly different outcomes for individuals. Even this most radical of the Founding Fathers knew that the equality of rights on which American independence rests would necessarily lead to inequality of condition. Indeed, he believed that something like an aristocracy would arise—springing from talent and virtue, he ardently hoped, not from inherited wealth or status.
In the greatest of the Federalist Papers, Number 10, James Madison explicitly pointed out the connection between liberty and inequality, and he explained why you can’t have the first without the second. Men formed governments, Madison believed (as did all the Founding Fathers), to safeguard rights that come from nature, not from government—rights to life, to liberty, and to the acquisition and ownership of property. Before we joined forces in society and chose an official cloaked with the authority to wield our collective power to restrain or punish violators of our natural rights, those rights were at constant risk of being trampled by someone stronger than we. Over time, though, those officials’ successors grew autocratic, and their governments overturned the very rights they were supposed to protect, creating a world as arbitrary as the inequality of the state of nature, in which the strongest took whatever he wanted, until someone still stronger came along.
In response, Americans—understanding that “kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people,” as Jefferson snarled—fired their king and created a democratic republic. Under its safeguard of our equal right to liberty, each of us, Madison saw, will employ his different talents, drive, and energy, to follow his own individual dream of happiness, with a wide variety of successes and failures. Most notably, Federalist 10 pointed out, “From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results.” That inequality would be a sign of the new nation’s success, not failure. It would mean that people were really free. Continue reading