On Tyranny and Liberty- City Journal
A U.S. Supreme Court justice recounted over cocktails a while ago his travails with his hometown zoning board. He wanted to build an addition onto his house, containing what the plans described as a home office, but he met truculent and lengthy resistance. This is a residential area, a zoning official blustered—no businesses allowed. The judge mildly explained that he would not be running a business from the new room; he would be using it as a study. Well, challenged the suspicious official, what business are you in? I work for the government, the justice replied. Okay, the official finally conceded—grudgingly, as if conferring an immense and special discretionary favor; we’ll let it go by this time. But, he snapped in conclusion, don’t ever expletive-deleted with us again.
Isn’t that sort of petty tyranny? I asked.
Yes, the justice replied; there’s a lot of it going around.
Tyranny isn’t a word you hear often, certainly not in conversations about the First World. But as American voters mull over the election campaign now under way, they’re more than usually inclined to ponder first principles and ask what kind of country the Founding Fathers envisioned. As voters’ frequent invocations of the Boston Tea Party recall, the Founding began with a negation, a statement of what the colonists didn’t want. They didn’t want tyranny: by which they meant, not a blood-dripping, rack-and-gridiron Inquisition, but merely taxation without representation—and they went to war against it. “The Parliament of Great Britain,” George Washington wrote a friend as he moved toward taking up arms several months after the Tea Party, “hath no more Right to put their hands into my Pocket without my consent, than I have to put my hands into your’s, for money.”
With independence won, the Founders struggled to create a “free government,” fully understanding the novelty and difficulty of that oxymoronic task. James Madison laid out the problem in Federalist 10. “Because men are not angels,” he explained, they need government to prevent them, by force when necessary, from invading the lives, property, and liberty of their fellow citizens. But the same non-angelic human nature that makes us need government to protect liberty and property, he observed, can lead the men who wield government’s coercive machinery to use it tyrannically—even in a democracy, where a popularly elected majority can gang up to deprive other citizens of fundamental rights that their Creator gave them. In writing the Constitution, Madison and his fellow Framers sought to build a government strong enough to do its essential tasks well, without degenerating into what Continental Congress president Richard Henry Lee termed an “elective despotism.” It’s to ward off tyranny that the Constitution strictly limits and defines the central government’s powers, and splits up its power into several branches and among many officers, all jealously watching one another to prevent abuse.
When we ask how our current political state of affairs measures up to the Founders’ standard, we usually find ourselves discussing whether a given law or program is constitutional, and soon enough get tangled in precedents and lawyerly rigmarole. But let’s frame the question a little differently: How far does present-day America meet the Founders’ ideal of free government, protecting individual liberty while avoiding what they considered tyranny? A few specific examples will serve as a gauge.
The Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo v. City of New London decision is notorious enough, but it bears recalling in this connection, for the whole episode is objectionable in so many monitory ways. In the year 2000, the frayed Connecticut city had conceived a grandiose project to redevelop 90 waterfront acres, in conjunction with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s plan to build an adjoining $300 million research center. A conference hotel—that inevitable (and almost inevitably uneconomic) nostrum of urban economic-development authorities—would rise, surrounded by upscale housing, shopping, and restaurants, all adorned with a marina and a promenade along the Thames River. Promising to create more than 3,000 new jobs and add $1.2 million in revenues to the city’s declining tax rolls, the redevelopment authority set about buying up the private houses, mostly old and modest, on the site….