‘Moral decay’ and the rot of paternalism

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Last week, I invoked the names of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton to trace the roots of American political polarity back to the very foundation of our country.

There is much to recommend both, and we certainly owe Hamilton a debt of gratitude for his contributions to the Federalist Papers and thus for his role in securing our Constitution at a time when our nation was wobbly and transitional.

Nonetheless, with more than 200 years behind us, we can see that Jefferson’s vision of limited government secured for us something much more important than a Constitution, and that is liberty.

We still have a Constitution, but the cancerous central government that Hamilton’s philosophy unleashed on us has made the concept of liberty increasingly irrelevant in America.

What is liberty when you can be forced by your government to spend endless hours toiling in the Kafka-esque maze of compliance and kow-towing that is our federal government today? As businesses and individuals scurry to curry favor with their masters in Washington, D.C., the nation’s wealth is being absorbed into a bottomless drain of regulation and dictate.

And what’s scary is that this is the accepted norm. The Supreme Court has joined with Congress and the president to rewrite the very rules which were intended to protect the people. Now the Constitution of the United States of America is an instrument of the government, not a solemn vow of the people. The blessings of liberty have been replaced with the burdens of noblesse oblige.

To accurately reflect the current situation, the Preamble would today have to be phrased something like this:

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect welfare state, establish social justice, insure domestic compliance, provide for open borders, promote the general anesthesia, and secure the benefits of big government to ourselves and our posterity, do impose and self-validate this Constitution of the United States of America.”

That pretty much sums it up, and yet because of the “general anesthesia” that has been so effectively levied upon the people for the past hundred years, what should be the self-evident truth of our sad predicament is instead considered the crackpot invention of rebellious “crazies” like Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin. Think “The Matrix,” and you will not be far off.

Of course, all you need to do to see the truth is open your eyes — or read a history book from before 1970 or so. We no longer live in the real world, folks — but it’s still there to be rediscovered.

Take this headline from 1969: “O’Connor Cites Moral Decay; Government Paternalism.”

That certainly caught my eye when I was doing research on some old-time businesses in Kalispell. The speaker was George O’Connor, then president of the Montana Power Co., who was addressing the Kalispell Rotary Club on Maundy Thursday.

Mr. O’Connor was lamenting the decline of the nation. After praising the invention of America and “200 years of American life under the Christian influence of God-fearing people” and noting that “nowhere on earth has so much progress been made in such a little time,” he then concluded that such progress had stopped about 35 or 40 years previously, about the time of the commencement of the New Deal.

“Now maybe it’s time we take a look at what we have reaped,” he told those Rotarians. “There has been a decay in the Christian philosophy. For the first 150 years our people had great respect for the rights of others; today it is the law of the jungle. Our children were taught to respect the property rights of other citizens; today there are riots, demonstrations, and all we as a nation do is appoint a commission to see what’s wrong with our social structure...

“The Supreme Court by virtue of some of its decisions is making it more comfortable for the criminally inclined. Maybe it’s time we start going back to church, not just Easter Sunday but every Sunday, and encourage our young people to go because a majority of them are fine young people.”

This part of O’Connor’s speech is most remarkable not because of its content, but because it happened at all. Whether you agree with his assessment of how Christian philosophy is tied up in our heritage and our success as a nation, you must at least be struck by the fact that in 1969 a major business leader still felt comfortable to promote a moral point of view in public.

This simply doesn’t happen any more. Or when it does, such as the public pronouncement recently by the CEO of the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain about homosexual marriage, there is an immediate national movement to shame, mock and vilify traditional values and those who promote them. Were the CEO of a major power company to even cite “Christian philosophy” today, he would probably be skirting the law, if not breaking it outright. There is almost no chance that a modern-day CEO of a public utility would declare, as O’Connor did, that during the Great Depression, “Americans turned to a servant, Jesus Christ, and he was our master.”

That collapse of the invocation of morality in the public square can be attributed in large part to the growth of central government at the cost of our personal liberty, and perhaps O’Connor sensed that his kind’s days were already numbered, for he next lamented the leviathan which government had become.

“But while I’m disturbed by the breakdown in law and order,” he said, “I am more concerned about the growing paternalism of government. A government that is getting to be our master. A government that wants to assume responsibility for the type of toothpaste we use, how it is packaged; for the materials in our clothing; wants to tell us how to run our farms; regulate the pipeline industry; and is an authority on every type of business.”

Please don’t tell me that we have lost no liberty. When every choice we make is circumscribed by the government’s nanny-state do-goodism, when every business has to serve Washington first and the consumer second, when we have a Congress that wants to make decisions for us about our health care, our cars, and our culture, then we have not only lost our liberty, we have lost the land of the noble free.

Is that important enough to write about? Is that important enough to speak out about? George O’Connor thought so, and he told the Kalispell Rotary just why it ought to matter to them, and ultimately why it ought to matter to us these 44 years later:

“Unless we strive to preserve the things handed down to us; unless we let men run their own businesses and if they are lucky enough make a profit and keep some of it; then there will be no economy in the Flathead, Montana, or our nation.”

Let our watchword be liberty, and let us not be distracted by convenience, compromise or derision. Whatever the cost, carry on. That — not a free ride — is the American way.

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