July 11, 2014 | by Axel Kaiser Print

Every revolution -- those delusional efforts to redesign the social and economic order in its entirety from the top down -- led to bloodshed, misery, and tyranny. In this, history shows almost no exceptions -- except, of course, for the American Revolution, whose 238th anniversary was celebrated this past 4th of July. 

While the French Revolution, the first egalitarian-rationalist exercise of the modern era, led to the Reign of Terror and to a great extent presaged the Marxist revolutions, both in form or substance, the American Revolution produced the first democracy of the modern era and the freest, most prosperous society humanity has yet seen.

As Lord Acton would later note, Europe seemed incapable of cherishing freedom; freedom would have to find fertile ground in America in order to conquer the world. The fundamental question is why, unlike other revolutions, did the American Revolution result in a free society in both political and economic terms.

The answer is that American independence was really not the product of a revolution. Americans, unlike the French and the Soviets, never tried to establish order starting from square one, and they never trusted in the socially engineered plans designed by intellectuals.

When the colonists rebelled against the English king, they did so by accusing him, within reason, of having violated the most essential institutions and principles of the English tradition. Among these, they stressed the right to property, due process, and political representation.

Since their arrival in America, the first settlers had incorporated the rule of law and the principles of popular sovereignty as the foundations of the political order. The American Revolution was thus a struggle to preserve, not knock down, already established institutions.

Hence, Edmund Burke, who would launch an explosive attack on the French Revolution and its attempt to construct a completely new order from the top down, justified the American Revolution by signaling that the colonists were "not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles."

John Adams, the second president of the United States, and probably the most widely read of the Founding Fathers, went so far as to say that the French Revolution, with its egalitarianism and rationalism, had not one “principle in common" with the American Revolution and that all of the resulting constitutions could be considered "idiotic." This is a key factor that has always set classical liberals apart from socialists. Classical liberals in the Anglo-Saxon tradition believe that progress is a result of a long and complex evolution that is driven by spontaneous forces developed from within society. Institutions such as language, property, family, money, the market, and many other things on which society is built were not "invented" by some brilliant mind, but rather emerged gradually through millions of human actions without direction from any one authority.

For that reason, classical liberals see freedom as the fountain of progress. Socialists -- and so-called progressive liberals -- on the other hand tend to believe that progress can be designed from the top and that all that social advancement needs is for an enlightened intellectual and political elite to make certain laws to guide the lives of citizens. For that reason, the state is seen as solution to every problem.

The liberalism that gave birth to democracy and America's economic success relies on the creativity of ordinary people and the effectiveness of civil society to take care of those who need support. This last point is crucial. One thing that most struck Alexis de Tocqueville on his visit to the United States in the 19th century was the number of voluntary civic associations that existed throughout the country to meet society's needs. Tocqueville noted that the contrast with France, where the state was counted on for everything, could not have been greater.

Tocqueville's compatriot, economist Frédéric Bastiat, would complain that while the French expected "all imaginable human benefits" from the state, Americans did not expect anything from anybody but themselves. Even today there is no more unified and charitable a people than the people of the United States, according to all quantitative indicators.

The great solidarity in America correlates to the people’s understanding of liberty as the absence of arbitrary third-party interference in the lives of others. In this view, we are free so long as we are not subject to the will of others, even when our material means are limited. That we are masters of our own destinies makes us responsible for our own lives and, in a fraternal fashion, for the welfare of our neighbors in distress.

And even though the expansion of the welfare state has been destroying American solidarity, as Niall Ferguson has shown, when an American sees people in need, he acts to help them. He doesn't avoid his social responsibility by claiming that bureaucrats and politicians should resolve social problems. Solidarity in the American tradition is understood as a matter of personal responsibility, as a moral duty to one's neighbor, and not as an excuse to increase state power.

As one can easily see, the consequence of this philosophy of personal responsibility is limited government. Few could better express the spirit of American libertarianism better than Thomas Jefferson, who in his first inaugural speech as president proclaimed: "What more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people?  Still one thing more, fellow citizens -- a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned."

Long live the "revolution" of Jefferson and company because their ideals are the only way out for South America, which has been ruined by the rationalist illusion which claims that the origin of progress and social well-being is political power and state planning, rather than individual liberty and the spontaneous solidarity of civil society.

 

This article was originally published at El Mercurio.com and has been translated and reprinted with permission from the publisher and the author. http://www.elmercurio.com/blogs/2014/07/08/23333/Larga-vida-a-la-revolucion.aspx?utm_source=hootsuite&utm_campaign=hootsuite