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Commentary & Opinion

Bryan Griffin: Free First

The American design was not of a generous government that gave citizens rights, but of a people who held freedom by their very nature and mutually agreed to allow the government to regulate in limited capacities.

A great analogy made by Timothy Sandefur in his recent book The Permissive Society likens our liberty to a presumption of innocence in a court of law. Much as every man or woman is presumed innocent until proven guilty, our liberty by original design is ours to exercise in any given situation unless the government has a compelling reason to get involved and limit it – such as when our decisions affect the equal rights of others.[1]  

Our founders were very clear about this: we are free individuals living under a government that should be only as big as it necessarily needs to be. Today, we see the opposite mentality in American society. Our government is enormous at every level, and we are regulated—through licensing, permits, fees, statutes, and laws—in nearly every capacity. We’ve lost an important American concept in gradual concession over time: that we permit government in its actions, not the other way around.

A reflection of our backslide is most readily observed on the 2020 Democratic debate platform. With little exception, the Democrats’ every policy suggestion is one of supporting a government imposing its preferences on the people instead of the people choosing and living their own preferences unless they interfere with those of another.

According to Thomas Jefferson, “Liberty is unobstructed action according to our will; but rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will, within the limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”

What happened to our sense of freedom?

We face an unfortunate irony. The progressive left is fighting relentlessly to grow our government to a size where it can force society to reflect their conceptualization of what it should be. Yet, if we lose the fundamental American attitude of freedom first, we all lose our best hope at a truly progressive society.

What happens if the left consolidates all this power to shape society and then gets it wrong? What if today’s progressive values are not tomorrow’s?

A truly progressive society reflects the true will of as many of its citizens as possible. Thus, citizens must be free to live and organize in as many ways as they prefer so long as they do not disrupt the right of others to do the same. It’s the type of society that protesters in Hong Kong are currently fighting for against the authoritarian Chinese state. It’s the type of society that Iranian citizens are dying for in their struggle against the horrifically abusive Islamic Republic of Iran.

The original American constitutional design embodied the most revolutionary progressivism the world had ever seen in layering our government and dividing roles and responsibilities among the states and the federal government. This concept is called federalism.

The American federal system reflects the ideology of Jeffersonian liberty: grassroots, localized attempts at reflecting individualism in government is safer (and far more progressive) than a single massive authority. America is a collection of fifty unique states that give citizens fifty chances at getting government right about any given issue.

Originally, the states were supposed to hold all of the authority over governance that was not explicitly written into the Constitution as a role for the federal government. The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states (to this day), “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

By design, our founders knew that government wouldn’t always get it right. So, in many cases, it is up to the citizens of each state to try their best to organize their government around an issue and live it out. Beautifully, as an American citizen, you can freely move out of any state and into another should the decisions of that state government not match your preferences.

This is an incredibly valuable tool in the American toolbox of progressive freedom that we have long forsaken. With the exception of laws that infringe on the equal rights of others (a protection that must be guaranteed equally by the federal government) think about some of the aspects of American society that the federal government recently tackled from a top down approach that could have been so much better served if tailored specifically to the citizens of a state by the government of a state. And, if we didn’t like the way it looked in action, we could seek out any of 49 other alternatives.

Healthcare comes to mind. As does education. Even environmental protection. Yes, states still have departments focused on these issues, but the federal government is carving out more and more of a role for its top-down authority among these issues at the cost of states’ rights.

We should seek a society that reflects the preferences of the governed, promotes individualism without a need for classes or groups (which reduces discrimination), and ensures that the laws we live by reflect our own will, not the will of a single person’s definition of right and wrong (this is tyranny). Ultimately, today’s progressive politicians aren’t fighting for a progressive society. They are building an authoritarian state. Limited government and federalism—building blocks of Conservatism—are the key to a truly progressive society. We are free first.


[1] Conceptualizations of this point taken from Free People Don’t Ask the Government for Permission, in Reason Magazine https://reason.com/2019/11/22/free-people-dont-ask-the-government-for-permission/

Bryan Griffin of the London Center for Policy Research is a lawyer and author who specializes in American policy in the Middle East.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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