Ibram X. Kendi published the article, “What to an American Is the Fourth of July?” a year ago, on the Fourth of July. I have only scanned it, for reasons I can give another time. The sentence under the title caught my eye:
Power comes before freedom, not the other way around.
I’ll take that as my text.
The simple reply to the assertion – power comes before freedom – is that power always diminishes freedom, no matter where it lies in our moral order. Power is the ability to force someone else to do something. Power is control. Slave owners hold power. Enforcers of Jim Crow, apartheid, and caste systems hold power. Donald Trump wants to hold power, though he has some disabilities in that area.
The idea that equality or justice can exist in a society where certain groups of people hold power over others, even temporarily, is a fantasy. Phantasms of collective power exercised to benefit everyone except enemies of the state undergird Marxist-Leninist ideology. If capitalists hold power over workers because capitalists control the means of production, then we will take their property and their power away from them, and give both to the workers. If white people hold power over black people because white people are born privileged and black people are not, then we will take white privilege and white power away from them, and give both to black people.
We have seen how communism works in practice. We have also seen Martin Luther King preach against use of force in every circumstance. The only kind of power he believed in was spiritual power, which is not at all like political and economic power wielded on earth. He showed how spiritual power – satyagraha in Gandhi’s language – works to achieve freedom. It is the only kind that works. I read enough of Kendi’s article to understand he does not appeal to spiritual power.
Because freedom, not power, is foundational, freedom precedes power. Power does not “come before freedom.” Why is that the case? We can start with the truism: as state power grows, freedom diminishes. In fact, that is the sole purpose of state power – to constrict freedom, individual freedom in particular, for the greater good. If people who want to pass a law or a regulation cannot point to some greater good, they have no claim to interfere with our freedom at all.
Yet freedom comes first, as a birthright. You do not need to believe in a divine Creator to believe that every baby – every human of any age – has a right to be treated humanely by other human beings. This natural right makes cruelty wrong, independent of law. We add law in order to protect the right. Freedom from cruel treatment precedes the coercive force of law.
To take another example, we often associate the idea of power with national, or military power. Nation states want to maintain capable armed forces not only for prestige, security, and power projection, but also to protect freedom of those within their borders. If we cannot protect our inhabitants, leaders would say, we cannot call ourselves a state.
That argument appears to confirm the presumption that power precedes freedom, that in fact, state power is a necessary condition for freedom. I would disagree, however, because protectors and protected are the same people. True enough, states tend to draw fighters from the ranks of young men, but an armed force is hardly effective without support from all the citizens that rely on it. That is why we have voluntary armed forces. Most countries discover that armies of draftees are worse than no army at all: they cost a lot, and they don’t fight to win. They don’t want to win. They don’t even want to fight. They just want to go home.
William Westmoreland debated Milton Friedman about the efficacy of volunteer forces vs. conscripts. Westmoreland objected to the idea of offering cash incentives to soldiers to fight for their country, saying he did not want to lead an army of mercenaries. Friedman replied, “Would you rather lead an army of slaves?”
Only an army of free citizens, who enlist, train, and fight as volunteers, can prevail in battle. If the state forces you to fight, it has already lost your loyalty, your independent will, as well as your abilities and esprit. As Eleanor Roosevelt said on her radio broadcast hours after Pearl Harbor, “Whatever is asked of us, I am sure we can accomplish it. We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America.” Freedom precedes power.
Let’s consider a third example, economic rather than military or spiritual. Let’s say you want to start a business, but you need a loan to get started. You ask family and friends if they might want to invest, but they want security for their loan, or some sure return on their investment. You go to a bank, and the loan officer tells you the same thing. We can’t loan you money for something that doesn’t exist. You have no security.
Almost every entrepreneur faces a problem like this one at the start of an enterprise. How do I build a business without money, and how do I obtain money without a business? For most businesses, so-called sweat equity does not solve all of these problems.
Regulations and taxes of all sorts make these problems harder to solve, by many degrees. Entrepreneurial energy would flow through the economy more freely if government institutions – the state – stood out of the way. As it is, state power suppresses many a creative idea, as judicious business people try to find a way to get started in spite of these constraints.
Yet energy, hopes, and ideas for innovative business plans percolate constantly, with no true outlet so long as governments regard small business owners as under-capitalized risks to safety, and doomed to fail anyway. Regulatory power intended to reduce risk of every kind does not aid business innovation. It harms it. In business and economics, power suppresses freedom essential for prosperity and individual growth.
To increase freedom, diminish the state. Diminish the power that one official or institution can exert over other individuals or groups. Reduce and eliminate legal constraints, no matter how prospects of less risk and greater control might tempt you to increase them. The greater good comes at a high price when you pay with your autonomy.