Government’s responsibility “is to preserve the independence of property, on which is founded all human liberty and all human excellence,” explained Princeton history professor Lawrence Stone in his book The Causes of the English Revolution: 1529-1642. He continued, “but to govern is to wield power and power has a natural tendency to encroach. It is more important to supervise government than to support it because the preservation of independence is the ultimate political good.”
Thus, wise people restrain government to its legitimate purpose: protection of property. To preserve their precious independence, they justifiably distrust when governments overreach, seeking avenues for greater control and intervention. Even if not motivated by love of liberty, they recognize that a government assault on someone today can become an assault on themselves tomorrow.
Dr. Stone identifies conditions in which free people must be especially vigilant, conditions that jeopardize freedom: growing class antagonism, psychologically insecure and inept officials, economic crisis, intransigent leaders representing polarized societal groups.
Successful operation of government depends “on the maintenance of a balance in which no one faction is ever allowed to establish a grip on either the policy-making or the patronage-dispensing…and in which the favors distributed…were not so inordinately lavish as to arouse the indignation of the taxpayers.”
Further, he questions whether a nation “can survive if its educational system is largely in the hands of men who reject the values upon which it is based.”
Among the English Revolution’s roots, Stone cites abandoning the Rule of Law and using edicts to mould behavior. “What started as a bold legislative attempt at social engineering ended in a squalid administrative exercise in corrupt exploitation….” Moreover, people “were exasperated with an [unpopular] foreign policy, a hopelessly inept military policy, chaotic public finances and limitless corruption and nepotism….”
Citing their ancient tradition of government accountable to the people, Englishmen urged respect for “the sanctity of property and the ultimate supremacy of the law….” They had inherited a set of rules that they could use to protect “private property…and persons from the encroachment of a centralizing state…. The sanctity of individual property rights was to them…the keystone….”
The culmination of these and other stresses was “the growing crisis of confidence in the integrity and moral worth of the holders of high administrative office.” There was widespread dissatisfaction with “the increased size and cost, coupled with the deterioration in efficiency and integrity, of the central organs of government.” Fiscal policy embittered the public “because the money was levied in an unconstitutional and arbitrary manner and was used for purposes which many taxpayers regarded as immoral…. Every aspect of economic life suffered from the feverish interference of a bureaucracy whose sole objective seemed to be the extraction of money by the imposition of a multitude of petty and irritating regulations, many of which were of dubious legality.”
Stone concludes, “Their political rights were threatened…; their finances were threatened by arbitrary taxation…; their title to property was threatened…; their law the Common Law which protected property rights was threatened….”
All these grievances seem perilously familiar.
From the hunter-band’s chief to modern heads of state, probably all leaders have met “loyal opposition” blocs that shift in intensity and size. As historian and statesman Winston Churchill wisely recognized, tyrannical leaders only seem strong. Our Constitution’s tri-partite governmental structure and precisely defined powers protect us from such despotism. With our Constitution’s, periodic elections and term limits, we Americans know that we need only wait a few years for our next chance for change.