Last week while touring the East Coast on her “One Nation” bus tour, Sarah Palin visited Boston where she uttered this gibberish about Paul Revere: “He who warned the British that they weren’t gonna be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and by making sure that as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free and we were gonna be armed.”
Of course, there is nothing new here. Palin, like many politicians, is ignorant about many things, including history. But, what about our own ignorance? We may know the basic facts of Revere’s ride, but what if the context in which we have placed the ride is flawed in a basic way?
Paul Revere, we have been taught, is one of those essential men or women without whose actions history would have been fundamentally different. Can this really be true? Does our fate hang so precariously on the actions of single individuals? Are we really passive bystanders to the great play being enacted in front of us?
History, as taught in most schools, is a tedious compilation of discrete events with emphasis given to the actions of the great people. The theory holds that significant changes in history are caused primarily by the actions of these individuals who stood out as different from others of their time and place. For example, in American history textbooks, every president is featured, no matter how ordinary they were; special emphasis is given to those who had the biggest ambitions.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow chose to immortalize Paul Revere—but just as easily, he could have immortalized William Dawes or Israel Bissell. Dawes rode the same route as Revere, and both were later joined by Dr. Samuel Prescott who was the only one of the three to complete his route. Bissell rode for over four days covering over 345 miles between Boston and Philadelphia. Along his route he shouted “To arms, to arms, the war has begun,” and the message he carried from General Joseph Palmer was copied at each of his stops.
The struggle for freedom is an age-old struggle, and the American colonists were receptive to this transcendent idea. Revere, Dawes, Bissell and Prescott responded to what was needed on the night of April 18, 1775. A warning was needed, and they were inspired to act. Others also acted as they were called to do. All were part of a social fabric that was ripe for a freedom-based revolution. The essential element in the American Revolution was the receptivity of the population towards the ideas behind the revolution. Paul Revere’s ride was no more or less essential to the American Revolution than the millions of other individual acts that made the revolution possible.
There is an important lesson to be learned here. Most Americans think the essential battles in 2012 will be in the presidential primaries and then in the November presidential election. They are wrong. The essential battle is taking place in the mind of every citizen—today, tomorrow and every day. We should all be asking ourselves questions: What role should government play in society? Should the Federal Reserve be tinkering with interest rates? Should the federal government subsidize ethanol and nuclear power? Should the government be continuing its war on drugs? Should government force others to subsidize my standard of living? Should we be secure in our own homes against the coercive power of government? My list could go on and on.
If we’re unable to answer questions such as these—and as importantly, if we are unable to articulate the principles that inform our responses—than no matter who we support, we are part of the problem. If we are unprincipled, the next president of the United States will continue to espouse policies that will erode our freedoms and prosperity. That next president will not be to blame for the misery caused by his or her policies; instead, our ignorance will be the cause.
The politicians we elect reflect our collective national inward condition. There is little fundamental difference between the Sarah Palins and Barack Obamas of the world. Neither recognizes or understands that the President of the United States was never intended to be a great man doing great things. Instead, the president was to be steward of the principles that would allow others to do great things.
Economics professor Don Boudreaux makes this observation: “Society progresses only through the countless decencies, creative acts, honest exchanges, and faithfulness to responsibilities performed daily by millions of persons, nearly all of whom will be forgotten within a few decades of their deaths.”
Many in America no longer understand the basic truth in Boudreaux’s words. They are waiting for a political savior, and they will be sadly disappointed again. There are no political saviors. Only when the average American is willing to do the hard work that comes from studying and reflecting on the principles that support prosperity and freedom will candidates that support these policies be electable.
Studying these timeless principles is not enough. We can study an idea but not be willing to live by an idea. Other beliefs, often invisible to us, seemingly hijack our behavior. We can advocate free-markets, but then seek subsidies for our organization or industry on the grounds that we are somehow special. Or, on the grounds of the false belief that we are special, we can seek freedom for ourselves but then seek to restrict the freedom of others. Do we expect others to live by principles that we fail to live by ourselves? Is it not necessary for each of us, as individuals, to go through an inner process—a process that uncovers our own false beliefs that are undermining freedom? If so, there is an inner-work of freedom. Since we as a nation are fixated on events going on outside ourselves, we have much work to do.
Without being grounded in timeless principles to guide our actions, fear grows in the minds of people. Until we choose timeless principles over fear, look for increased political polarization as candidates emerge to feed off our fears.