I thoroughly enjoyed reading an article in Issue 26 by Butler Shaffer titled “Constitutions: No Authority.” This article was originally published in the Libertarian Party NEWS in 1986.
Shaffer shares an experience he had during a conference where he was speaking about the Constitution and its ability to protect human liberty. Shaffer believes that no constitution can guarantee freedoms because it’s impossible to hand over power and then have the ability to limit that power.
In describing what happened at the conference, I saw that his fellow participant reacted to his views in a manner that I think many of us have experienced before: if you challenge and criticize America’s government, then you must be equating our lack of freedom to the lack of freedom in other, harsher governments around the world.
You’ve probably heard the argument this way: “If you think it’s so bad here, why don’t you just go live in (insert any nation-state that is harsher than ours, preferably one that is making the news).”
Shaffer makes an excellent point that people such as this conference participant struggle with criticism of the U.S. government because they believe government is a necessary evil and the best you can do with such a belief is focus on which government is the lesser evil. Therefore, all that is left to say when people start criticizing even the “lesser evil” is to continue to compare it to worse alternatives, “greater evils.”
This paragraph in his piece is particularly awesome as Shaffer addresses the accusation that criticism of our form of government places it on equal footing with harsher governments:
“Of course America is a freer nation than the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, or Albania; of course I would rather live in America than any of these other tyrannical regimes; and of course I am more likely to prevail in a politically-motivated trial against me in America than in the Soviet Union. What does this obvious fact have to do with our understanding of what it means to be free? Even if the United States is the freest society in which to live today, ought that to relieve us of the task of increasing our liberties, of discovering how to abandon the political institutions—including our constitutional form of government —that restrict our liberty? Even if we have come further than other nations along on the road to a truly free society ought we to stop along the way and content ourselves with making favorable comparisons with those whose journeys have taken them along the paths to tyranny and oppression? It we can learn how to live without politics, without nation-states, without wars, without even the slightest restriction upon any of us, ought we to give up such a pursuit simply because others have chosen to remain locked in chains?”
I love that. For people who think we live in the freest nation on the planet, I would like to see a continuing open-mindedness to keep pushing and questioning in the effort to gain even more freedom. The people who founded the United States did not have it all figured out and we need to keep pushing on, critically analyzing the results of their actions and not stop because we may happen to compare more favorably than those in other parts of the world.