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Book Review: The Next American Civil War

The author points out that the early Americans left behind sharp class distinctions in the Old World which held people in predetermined places in society and required deference to the rich as their “betters.” In the New World of the rugged individualist and self-made man, everyone was on equal footing. Everyone had the potential for upward mobility through the fruits of their own labor. Unlike those today who rely on government entitlements and carry a victim mentality, the settlers were fiercely independent and their communities egalitarian. They freely reached out to lend a hand to neighbors knowing their neighbors would reciprocate in times of need.  This “no strings attached” charitable cooperation within frontier communities contributed to preservation of individual freedom because assistance was freely given and the settlers were not dependent on government largess.

Harris recounts how during the 1760s and 1770s when the American Sons of Liberty felt their freedom was threatened by the British Empire, they engaged in active rebellion, including violence, sabotage, and other acts of lawlessness.  By comparison, today’s town hall protests and spirited Tea Party movement rallies look tame. Resentment of the Crown’s unrestrained power of taxation and control reached the breaking point with passage of the Stamp Tax Act by the British Parliament in 1765. The tumult that followed made collection of the tax impossible and marked the beginning of significant revolutionary activity in the colonies. The success of the Stamp Act protests proved critical in mobilizing the colonists. It demonstrated to them that extreme action and breaking the law were necessary in their pursuit to regain liberty. The revolt against the Stamp Tax Act spurred the momentum for the American Revolution, which led to a new era of freedom for Americans, removed from the yoke of the British Empire.

Next, the Founding Fathers, in devising the basis for our constitutional republic, analyzed aspects of government that had worked in the past  to determine what would most likely be workable for an emerging American nation. Their approach to maintaining order was experimental, relying heavily on traditions as well as innovative solutions to the unique circumstances of the country. Punishments or consequences were applied fairly and equally, fostering trust in the government and a sense of justice about the law of the land.

Harris also discusses the delicate balance between effective governance and liberty. He cautions that civilization comes at the price of liberty. Sufficient governmental controls are critical to protect and defend liberty, but too much government can crush the spirit of independence required for a flourishing free society. Harris urges that a healthy dose of skepticism and periodic rebellion by the electorate are required to preserve freedom and, thus, human dignity. He wisely intones, “Civilization can pose a threat to freedom but freedom can pose a threat to civilization.”

In other words, some order and stability is necessary to safeguard freedom as boundless freedom can induce chaos. The rule of law needs to be respected but not if it runs contrary to the higher value of basic human rights.

Harris recognizes the importance of the “natural libertarians” that make up the Tea Party movement; they are part of the essential struggle to maintain liberty. The ornery libertarian spirit that questions the power elite from a common sense viewpoint and examines the practicality, efficacy, and fairness of high-minded theories and policies is an essential ingredient to preserve freedom. Their orneriness emanates from a rebellion against being told what to do -- a “don’t tread on me” credo. This is the very same “cognitive orneriness” and independent spirit in evidence at our nation’s founding and our rebellion against domination by a ruling class.

Harris sees the threat to liberty today as not emanating from Marxism, the essential focus of Tea Party activists, but from prosperous modern civilizations supported by cumbersome government bureaucracies, corporations, and media and from our failure to cherish freedom. He reasons that if we cared enough about freedom and less about material comforts, Marxist policies opposed by the majority of Americans would not be imposed upon us. The supremacy of the state as a vehicle to improve the lives of citizens has become a betrayal of American founding principles of individual liberty and traditions of self-sufficiency, hard work, and self-governance.

Harris proposes that a turnaround for future generations begins with our children. Rather than raise them with a sense of entitlement in which the struggle for their rights is paramount, we need to raise them with a sense of duty and responsibility.  They need to be taught self-control that is essential for preservation of freedom and to admire and emulate the heroes throughout our history who fought for freedom.

Our proud history is one of rowdy rugged individualists, not the well-bred, educated elite who have strayed from our founding principles. The power of the electorate to rise up against the tyranny of unlimited government rests in the people’s willingness to fight. In summary, Harris views the rebellion in evidence today as a healthy sign that will bring us full circle to the courageous and just use of civil unrest that was very much in evidence at our nation’s founding. Only by recapturing our revolutionary spirit and demanding control of our lives and destiny will we survive as a free and exceptional nation.