“By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is overthrown.”
We are continuing our discussion of freedom and responsibility.
America is a nation founded on the principle of liberty. However, it is vitally important that modern Americans come to grips with a key truth that lies at the heart of true freedom: Liberty is more than liberation. It starts with liberation, but it requires truth, character, and an ethical way of life in order to flourish.
True, lasting freedom requires citizens and leaders who commit to and live in alignment with shared values and standards. If we lose the shared standards, or if we lose our commitment to those standards, we will eventually lose our freedom.
This is why the founders focused on what they called “ordered liberty.” Lasting freedom requires boundaries and limits. Without order, liberty becomes license and then chaos.
In the 18th century, Montesquieu wrote that free societies require a combination of “the structures of freedom” and “the spirit of freedom.” The structures provide the political and organizational framework necessary for freedom to function, such as a wise constitution, limited government, separation of powers, good laws, and foundational principles like the rule of law and the right to personal property.
In other words, true freedom has requirements. In particular, it requires individual and institutional responsibility.
Institutionally, America must adhere to the structures of freedom. We must honor the framers’ principle of limited government and separation of powers between the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. We must return to a robust view of the rights and powers of local government to balance the power of the states, and of the rights and powers of the states to balance the rights and powers of the federal government.
Unfortunately, this approach to government in America has been virtually ignored in our time. Big government statism has replaced the core principles laid out in the Constitution. Starting in the post-Civil War period and accelerating through the deliberate centralization of government under the progressives and the Depression-era leaders, the federal government has grown to a dramatic and dangerous extreme in the last decade.
Important as they are, the structures are not the heart of freedom. They are only the external architecture. When carefully designed and effectively implemented, the structures provide the necessary organizing system for freedom, but by themselves they are not enough.
As I said last week, Montesquieu tells us that true and lasting liberty also requires “the spirit of freedom.” A nation and its people must be committed to the habits of the heart that produce the “obedience to the unenforceable” that true freedom requires. For freedom to actually work, there must be responsible self-rule on the part of citizens and civic leaders.
One of the great lessons of history is that freedom fails when it runs to excess and breeds permissiveness and self-indulgence. Unless corrected, unrestrained liberty leads to anarchy, which inevitably leads to tyranny.
The big problem is that permissiveness is addicting. When people throw off self-discipline, they become slaves to their own unchallenged ideas and unrestrained behavior. They become tone-deaf, and eventually hostile, to objective standards and common sense. This is precisely the direction America is currently headed. In many ways, we are already there.
Let me say it again: Lasting freedom has requirements. If we do not commit to the requirements, we will eventually lose our freedom. The key challenge is that a growing number of Americans want freedom without the requirements.
Proverbs 11.11 quoted above provides guidance. National culture is affected by the character of both its leaders and its citizens. When a nation or a city has a critical mass of wise and righteous people, it is a blessing and the nation prospers. But when there is a preponderance of people who speak and act foolishly, a nation will suffer.
We have a crisis of leadership in America, and we also have a crisis of citizenship. As Solomon says, “By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is overthrown.” There is simply too much foolishness in our society, and it is growing. The Greek philosopher Plato said it this way: “A city is what it is because its citizens are who they are.”
Begin with yourself. Trust God and do the work.