Did they die in vain?

As America remembers her honored dead this Memorial Day weekend – those who died in uniform defending our great cause of liberty – many hearts are troubled about what we have come to.  The idea of liberty on which our nation was founded seems to hang in tatters.  The genius of our forefathers in giving us a government that was to be limited, constitutional, and federal appears all but extinguished.  The indispensable ingredient of liberty, an independent people of good character, seems at times to be disappearing into a sorrowful sunset.

But I would like to suggest a few things about these discouraging fears.  First, I think the fear about the American people is overblown, because it is overhyped.  All we ever hear is bad news about the people.  Interestingly, however, in spite of our worsening economic situation and sense of political misdirection, America is still rumbling along:  her people still working and producing, still bearing children and raising them in families, still buying homes, still worshipping God as we see fit, and still paying taxes.  In spite of our mind-boggling, unparsable federal debt, there are thousands of safe, peaceful communities across America, in which the people live in diligence and hope.

The answer to why the nation continues to function lies with the people.  Government regulation does impose an increasingly onerous burden on us, of course.  Besides shutting down productivity entirely, in some cases, regulation makes everything cost more than it would otherwise, from our labor to real estate, and from automobiles to the price of milk, bread, and gasoline.  For several decades, debt was a relief valve for the rising cost of regulation, which eats away at the value of what we earn with productive work.  Now the regime of debt has largely shut down.

But Americans aren’t rioting in the streets over this.  We are tightening our belts, in order to get ourselves right with the future.  Don’t overlook the significance of this.  For every kid in the Occupy movement, there are hundreds his age finding whatever jobs are available and working hard, learning to be reliable employees and team players – and paying bills, saving money, and looking to what they can do about their own futures.  These young people, alongside their elders, are holding society together, with discipline and quiet, unheralded daily courage.

Don’t give up on Americans.  And don’t give up on liberty.  Regarding liberty, here is a lesson to commit to heart:  heavy-handed, dictatorial government never comes to take away the bad in people and their lives.  It comes to take away the good.

It is a fallacy of modern ignorance to think that no one had the idea, before about 1850, to make his fellows better by regulating and taxing them.  If that could be done, we would have been perfected long ago.  Governments have made that their rallying cry from the beginning of recorded history; overregulation and onerous taxation are always about “improving” the people and their conditions.  But what they actually do is sap the people’s initiative, productive instinct, and desire to live well, and do well by their fellow men, through knowing God.  No overweening government has ever ended up governing a hopeful, honest, productive people.

The good news is that America is the world’s example of what can be achieved by people who are not beholden to a god-like government.  America is not paralyzed today by the character of our people, the scarceness of our resources, or the terrors of our future.  America is paralyzed because our once-small government has grown on principles that are unworthy of us: invidious principles of despair, anger, resentment, and fear.  Because we are law-abiding and peaceable, our governments – too often vengeful and narrow-minded – hold us back.

Ronald Reagan said it repeatedly, and said it best:  Government is the problem.  I am not afraid of what the American people will do if we regain the liberties that are rightly ours.  I eagerly await the explosion of creativity and prosperity that will ensue.  We can produce, pay down, and manage our way out of the $100-trillion “entitlements bomb,” without penalizing the vulnerable.  And we do not have to be poor for generations in order to deal with it; in fact, we can’t be.  It won’t work.  We will deal with it only by regaining the prosperity and wealth that lie beyond the obstacles of the overregulatory state.  We can’t do this by staying on our current course, but if we change course, we will prove that history is not a death sentence for liberty.

Is Mitt Romney the person to lead us toward a different future?  I think he would give us a hiatus from the perils with which we are now on a collision course.  A president who would allow government to retain its current size and scope is not the reformer we will ultimately need; but the breathing space Romney could give us is indispensable.

I believe more and more Americans are seeing what those with wise foresight predicted as much as a century ago:  that when we give government greater power, someone will come along and use it in ways we did not intend.  Perhaps our slide into overweening statism has been necessary to teach a lesson to those who haven’t bothered to learn from history.  But there’s more good news in this regard:  we can learn the lesson and move forward.  Nothing compels us to spend time on backward-looking self-flagellation.  Lessons, yes.  Regret, no.

The beauty of restoring the unique American idea in our politics and common beliefs is that it inherently means moving forward.  In the last 80 years, America has been moving in fits and starts into the world’s past.  Over-governance and an institutionalized lack of confidence in the people are the past, as old as the pyramids but not nearly as interesting.  Any fool can proclaim – and often has – that the folks around him need more governing; history is largely an account of what happens next.  There is no impulse more common or banal than seeking to regulate and tax our fellows for “their own good.”

But the American idea is unique in setting explicit boundaries on that impulse.  Moving toward the American idea is always moving away from men’s overgoverned past and toward a better future.

A minority of American colonists was committed to the fight for independence – but they prevailed.  I don’t believe that the segment of today’s committed Americans is any smaller.  The only thing that can stop America from beating the odds now, as she has always done, is a loss of will by those who believe in her.

If history were a death sentence, America would never have been born.  If the past dictated the future, the light of liberty would have been shrouded in darkness some time ago; we who walk the land today would not even remember what it used to look like.

But we do.  Our nation did come into being; we not only ended slavery but we healed and thrived after our civil war; and as we survey the feckless wreckage of overgovernment strewn around us today, we can see that it is not the product of liberty, but of its opposite.  We can see the truth, and we have the great privilege of still being able to act on it.

Do not fear that Americans can’t do well with less government.  Something military officers learn early, if they are wise, is that you don’t control men: you believe in them.  And when you do, there is no limit to what they can accomplish.  The heroes who lie in our cemeteries, with the small flags waving bravely over them on Memorial Day, knew that.

I believe they did not die in vain.  Their spirit is with us now, carried in the hearts of those who knew and loved them, and the generations that have followed.  I believe we will honor them in the best way possible. We will beat the odds – again; we will give history something new to think about – again; and we will not sink in the mire but right ourselves, and trundle on toward firm ground and a bright future.

No nation has ever done this – but then, no other nation has been the United States of America.  When we do it, in peace, and for the world to see, it will indeed be our finest hour – and all the war dead whom we honor and thank today will be standing at our shoulders.

Let freedom ring.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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