Americans are waking up to the fact that our once free republic is in trouble. They are searching for answers to what seem like unsolveable problems: economic depression, unending war, political corruption, and vanishing liberties. What if there were just one answer – freedom? The American republic was founded upon that principle, yet few suggest that it is the solution to any of our problems, much less all of them. Yet, if freedom is the answer, we first must know what it is. Sadly, most Americans do not. That is why I wrote this book.
I hope you enjoy the Introduction and Chapter One: What is Freedom?, which I am making available for free below. The subsequent chapters discuss how freedom can solve the many challenges we face.
I look forward to fighting with you to restore our liberty. – Tom Mullen
Reviews by Congressman Ron Paul, economist Peter Schiff, and best-selling author Charles Goyette
“Thomas Mullen is a knowledgeable and passionate libertarian and A Return to Common Sense is a valuable addition to the libertarian literature. Those new to the freedom movement will benefit from Tom’s introduction to both the practical and moral arguments for freedom. Long-time activists will benefit from Tom’s explanation of why strict adherence to principle is vital to the future success of the liberty movement.”
- Representative Ron Paul (TX-14)
Congressman and author of The Revolution: A Manifesto and End the Fed.
“A well written primer on economics, liberty, and government that even avid Austrians will enjoy. If you have been blinded by government and Wall Street propaganda, A Return to Common Sense will help open your eyes. I not only recommend that you add this book to your freedom library, but that you buy a few copies for your friends.”
- Peter Schiff, President of Euro Pacific Capital, Inc and author of Crash Proof: How to Profit from the Coming Economic Collapse.
Tom Mullen has written a thorough and useful book. Those for whom a discussion of liberty is a new experience will discover in A Return to Common Sense a clear, easy to understand guide to the nature of freedom, and why it is essential to our fondest hopes for a civil society of opportunity, peace, and prosperity. For those who already share these values, it’s a welcome resource for perfecting our own knowledge and advancing our cause.
- Charles Goyette, author of THE DOLLAR MELTDOWN: Surviving the Impending Currency Crisis with Gold, Oil, and Other Unconventional Investments and RED AND BLUE AND BROKE ALL OVER: Restoring America’s Free Economy
Introduction: The American Crisis
“THESE are the times that try men‘s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
– Thomas Paine (1776)1
America finds itself in a time of crisis. For several generations we have expressed dissatisfaction with government, be it with the Viet Nam war, the energy and economic crises of the 1970‘s, the scandals of the 1980‘s and 1990‘s, or the present war in Iraq. While there is a case to be made that a little dissatisfaction with the status quo is healthy, it has gone far beyond that now. For anyone remotely in touch with the state of our republic, there is a growing sense of dread that whatever is wrong is getting much worse much faster. They realize that what was once a desire for change has now become a dire need for change. Yet, in as much as the voting public clamors for it, does anyone think for a moment that the majority of people in America actually know what changes are necessary, or even what changes they want?
The United States emerged from the 19th century amidst the most innovative period in the history of mankind. The industrial revolution had wrought miracles that could barely have been imagined 100 years before. After thousands of years of traveling on foot or on the backs of beasts of burden, automobiles carried Americans wherever they wished to go. Steamships freed travel by sea from the vagaries of the four winds, and the telegraph and telephone made communication with distant locations instantaneous, when just a few decades earlier weeks or even months might be required for a single letter to arrive. Electric light replaced the gas lamps of yesteryear, and man‘s most ancient dream was realized by Wilbur and Orville Wright.
With the explosion of technology came an explosion of wealth and prosperity. Mass production and other improvements in manufacturing made production of goods far cheaper and faster, increasing availability beyond the affluent to the common man. Indeed, as significant as the fortunes that were made by famous captains of industry was the increase in the standard of living of the growing middle class, and even of the poor. For the first time in history, the common people were the prime market for the output of society‘s production. After thousands of years to the contrary, children no longer had to toil with their parents just to ensure that the family had enough to eat. The average American lived comfortably on the income produced by one member of the family, and that family‘s standard of living was constantly improving. No challenge seemed too formidable for a people that had harnessed the power of lightning, conquered the air, and had seemingly made a servant of Mother Nature herself. Finally, the end of poverty and want were in sight.
At the dawn of the 21st century, no such optimism prevailed. The technology-fueled prosperity of the 1990‘s had hit a serious stumbling block with the crash of the NASDAQ index, and a recession was just getting underway when America welcomed a new president. In the midst of the economic doldrums, socio-political disaster occurred. Commercial airplanes exploded into the World Trade Center as a nation and world looked on in horror. The buildings fell down and the War on Terror began.
Eight years later, the United States finds itself quagmired in that war beyond anyone‘s expectations. Despite the fact that the Democrats won a majority in Congress in 2006 largely on an anti-war platform, at the end of 2008 there is still no end in sight to our occupation of Iraq. Similarly, we have elected a new president who began his campaign as an anti-war candidate, but has since shifted his position to declaring that America is in “the wrong war.” President Barack Obama has made it clear that he has no plans to bring any troops home from the Middle East if a withdrawal from Iraq is achieved. Instead, those troops will simply be transferred to Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight in what our new president deems “the right war.” As the budget deficits and loss of lives mount, Americans are left to wonder if we will be at war forever.
At home, we find ourselves in economic crisis. The stock market has experienced another historic crash, and for the second time in the past century we are told that we face a Great Depression. While 50 years ago, the average American family was comfortably supported by one income, both parents in that family typically work today, and a second job for at least one parent is not uncommon. While doctor bills were once only a concern for those with unusual medical needs, the typical American family is more and more being forced to choose between healthcare and other basic necessities. While past generations saved for a comfortable retirement, the average American today is deep in debt.
How could a century that started with such promise end with so much doubt? Where did we go wrong? Since her historic founding, America has been known as the “land of the free.” Yet, the answers proposed for each of our problems involves Americans giving up some of that freedom. However, if freedom is what made America great, why would less freedom make things better now?
We are told that “the world changed on September 11, 2001.” Is this true? Is the world fundamentally different than it was? Do evil people really hate us enough because of our freedom and prosperity to commit heinous acts of murder against us? Or are there other reasons? Do we really have to surrender some of our freedom in exchange for security against this new threat? What if the threat continues to increase?
Similarly, we are told that our economic crisis was caused by too much laissez faire capitalism and too little regulation. Can too much economic freedom really harm us? Will the massive new government programs and “reregulation” promised by our new President solve our problems? What if they don‘t? Will even less freedom be the answer then?
This book will set out to answer those questions. In order to do so, we must take a sober look in the mirror. In order to know what has put America in decline, it is necessary first to understand what made her great. At a time when most people are confused and searching for answers, we must shine the light of clarity on every aspect of our society. At times, that light may reveal truths that we are not ready to face, including the part each of us has played in bringing about our nation‘s decline.
We must question institutions that we have long ago come to think of as unquestionable. The past 100 years in America has been a time of significant change. Of course, the 20th century was a time of astounding technological advancement. However, we have also made ideological changes that have made America into a much different kind of society than the one that our founders built. Were those changes improvements, or have we moved away from the principles that made us great? Are we still the “land of the free?” Are we still the “land of opportunity?” Do we really know what those cherished words mean?
During the past few decades of apparent prosperity, very few of us wished to be bothered with the endless partisan bickering of our politicians, despite our frequent expressions of dissatisfaction with them. While we may not have agreed with much about the direction in which our leadership was taking our country, we did not connect what was happening in Washington, D.C. with our own lives or the lives of our families. We have been in a kind of slumber, believing that a free and open society of opportunity and prosperity is guaranteed in America, regardless of the decisions of politicians that determine what kind of society we are.
There is one thing that is certain. We are out of time. In past decades, we have talked about issues that we feared may present significant problems for the America of the future. That future is here. It is no longer enough to wistfully talk about the America that we will leave to our children. Everything we hold dear about America is in jeopardy, and the time has come to act.
What is Freedom?
“And what is this liberty, whose very name makes the heart beat faster and shakes the world?”
– Frederic Bastiat1 (1850)
If there is one thing that is uniquely associated with America, it is freedom. From the moment that Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown, America has been a symbol of liberty to the entire world. Since the end of World War II, when the United States assumed a worldwide leadership role, it has been the leader of the “free world.” At sporting events, standing crowds begin their ovation when the vocalist singing the national anthem gets to the words, “O’er the land of the free.” Even in everyday conversations, scarcely a day goes by that one does not hear someone say, “Do what you like, it’s a free country.” Come what may, the overwhelming majority of Americans are grateful that they live in America, the land of the free.
However, although we all agree that America is the “land of the free,” the next question may be a bit more difficult to answer. What is freedom? How is it defined? What makes America the land of the free? How would we know if we were to lose our freedom? What is it that our soldiers die for, and our politicians swear to defend?
We have been told a lot of things about what freedom is not. From the end of World War II until 1991, most Americans knew that freedom was not communism. For almost three generations, Americans lived in the “free world” during its cold war with the communist eastern bloc. Without further thought or instruction, it is not surprising that many children of the 20th century simply think of freedom as the antithesis of communism. In some ways, this is not completely untrue, although it hardly provides a complete answer to our question. In any case, what we do know about the communist regimes of the 20th century is enough for us to conclude that they were definitely not free societies.
Of course, that certainly does not mean that all systems of government besides communism provide freedom for their people. Our own country fought for its freedom against the monarch George III of England, whom the American colonists accused of tyranny. Likewise, the Royal House of Saud may be an ally of the U.S. government, but most Americans would not regard Saudi Arabia as a “free country.” In addition to monarchies, there are plenty of dictatorships around the world that are symbols of oppression. While some may likewise be allies of the U.S. government, they nevertheless represent an absence of freedom for their people. So, a society is not free merely because it is not communist.
On the other hand, Great Britain has been a relatively free country for its people throughout much of its history over the past several centuries, even when the monarchy was much more than a figurehead. Despite the dispute between George III and the American colonies, Great Britain was at that time the freest society in the world, and with the exception of the United States remained so for some time afterwards. Therefore, rather than conclude that no freedom is possible under a monarchy, we might conclude that monarchies neither guarantee nor necessarily exclude freedom, while dictatorships for the most part exclude it. Still, examining these systems of government, at least superficially, does not get us any closer to defining freedom.
Perhaps we can define freedom more easily by looking at its antithesis. Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists slavery among antonyms for freedom. Surely, here we have found a start. Most people would agree that slavery is the complete absence of freedom. Who can we imagine that is less free than the slave? This is helpful in beginning to try to frame an answer. However, freedom cannot be the mere absence of slavery. Surely our founding fathers bled to give us a higher standard than this!
If we are told anything about what freedom is by our teachers, politicians, or media, it is that freedom is democracy. If you ask most Americans what freedom is, this is the most likely answer that you will get. This is reinforced ad nauseum by those same politicians, media, and teachers in our public schools. When Iraq held its first elections after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, politicians and journalists universally celebrated the Iraqis’ “first taste of freedom.”
Certainly, democracy is a vast improvement over the autocratic rule of a dictator, but does democracy automatically mean freedom? If democracy is rule by the majority, what about the minority? What if 51 % of the people voted to oppress the other 49%? Would that society truly be free?
Most Americans would be quite surprised to learn what our founding fathers thought about democracy. Any objective analysis would conclude that their feelings about democracy lay somewhere between suspicion and contempt. While he often extolled the virtue of majority rule, as long as it continued to protect natural rights, Thomas Jefferson also wrote,
“…that the majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society.”2
James Madison said, “Democracy is the most vile form of government … democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention: have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property: and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths,”3
In a letter to James Monroe, Madison also said,
“There is no maxim, in my opinion, which is more liable to be misapplied, and which, therefore, more needs elucidation, than the current one, that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong.”4
Can this be true? The founding fathers were ambivalent toward democracy? For many people, this is tantamount to sacrilege. More shocking still is what the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution say about democracy – nothing. Nowhere in our founding documents will you find the word democracy or the assertion, either implicit or explicit, that our government is a democracy. How can this be?
Despite what we are taught almost from birth, the United States of America has never been a democracy. As only contrarians seem to point out these days, the United States of America is a constitutional republic. We choose our leaders using the democratic process of majority vote, but that is the extent to which the United States involves itself with democracy.
So, like monarchy, democracy neither guarantees nor necessarily excludes freedom. In fact, our founding fathers actually feared that democracy poses a great danger to freedom. Apart from the pure heresy of the idea, it leaves us with an even greater problem. We are no closer to defining freedom. If even democracy is not freedom, then perhaps freedom doesn’t really exist! If we are not to find freedom in democracy, where else can we look?
We certainly won’t learn what freedom is from our politicians. While terrorism, healthcare, unemployment, gay marriage, and a host of other “major” issues dominate public debate, freedom is an issue that is just too quaint, too academic, or too forgotten to get any airplay. Yet, as we shall see as we explore the different subjects of this book, freedom is the fundamental issue. In fact, despite what we perceive as a myriad of different problems facing the United States of America today, freedom is actually the only issue. That may be hard to accept at this point, given the decades of shoddy history, obfuscation, and plain old bad ideas that we’ve been bombarded with. Nevertheless, no matter what specific issue we confront in this book, every one of them actually revolves around freedom. Therefore, if freedom is really that important, if our soldiers are truly dying for our freedom, we’d better be absolutely sure that we know what it is.
In order to answer the question posed by Bastiat at the beginning of this chapter, we will have to go back to the beginning. Our founding fathers faced no such quandary about the definition of freedom; they knew exactly what it was. They were children of the Age of Reason, and derived their ideas about freedom directly from the enlightenment philosophers, especially John Locke. While these philosophers were powerful thinkers and their ideas were (no pun intended) revolutionary at the time, the principles of liberty are relatively simple. They are, as the namesake of this book concluded, Common Sense. In fact, it was an understanding of these revolutionary ideas by average American colonists that inspired the revolution that gave birth to a nation.
The idea that opens the door to the true meaning of freedom is individual rights. Despite the emphasis in today’s discourse placed upon the “general welfare” and the “common good,” the tradition of liberty that our country was founded upon had nothing to do with either. Instead, our founders believed that each individual was born with natural, unalienable rights. The Declaration of Independence states,
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” 5
This passage is quoted widely in popular culture. Invariably, the words that are emphasized are “that all men are created equal.” Certainly, these are fine words, and worthy of veneration. However, the rest of this passage is equally important. It says that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Thus, every human being, having been created in a state of equality with all other human beings, has rights that no earthly power can take away. These rights are “endowed by their Creator,” so that government – even a democratically elected government – has no power to revoke them. To the founding fathers this was “self evident.” It was true based purely upon man’s existence itself.
This idea is drawn directly from the philosophy of John Locke, who wrote,
“A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection,”6
While the rights alluded to are “endowed by their Creator,” it is important to note that the founders did not specify who the Creator was. Too often, those arguing for the ideals of our republic make the fatal mistake of basing the natural rights upon belief not only in God, but specifically upon the Christian God. While the founders were by no means ambivalent towards Christianity, and in fact most of them either practiced it or at least admired its teachings, belief in Christianity or even in God is not necessary to support the argument made by the founders for the natural rights. The beauty of this idea is that it transcends religion and thus welcomes members of all religions, and those with no religious beliefs at all. Thus, the first building block of freedom – individual, unalienable rights – can be claimed by Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists – by every person on earth.
So what are these individual rights, which cannot be taken away by any power on earth? Our Declaration goes on to say, “That among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”7
At first glance, this statement might be a bit deceiving, maybe even a little disappointing. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness? Is that it? Surely we have more rights than these! Of course, the Declaration says “among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” so it does not limit the natural rights to these three. However, these three are hugely important. It is worthwhile to determine the meaning of each.
The right to life is pretty easy to understand. Most civilized societies have laws against murder. Each individual has a right not to be killed. So far, so good. What about the other two? We are in the midst of trying to define “liberty,” or “freedom,” so let us put that aside for the moment. The third right listed is “the pursuit of happiness.” What does that mean? Does it mean nothing? Or does it mean everything? What if it makes me happy to steal cars or blow up buildings? Surely, I don’t have a right to pursue happiness like that!
Again, we can find the answer in Locke,
“To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.” 8
A careful read of this passage reveals that there is a limit on our actions while pursuing our happiness. For, while people are free to do what they want, they must do so “within the bounds of the law of nature.” What is the “law of nature?” Locke goes on to tell us,
“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and Reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions…” 9
Finally, we have some indication of what freedom is, rather than what it is not. The first part of the Locke passage is easily understood. No one has the right to harm another person’s life or health. This prohibits individuals from initiating violence against one another. Therefore, freedom or liberty is not the unlimited ability to do whatever you want, nor is it confined to the arbitrary limits placed upon people by governments. Contrary to the spurious argument that unfettered liberty would result in societal chaos, we see that the law of nature, Reason, very clearly and unambiguously prohibits some actions, even for people in a state of perfect liberty. They are:
1. Initiating the use of force or violence
2. Infringing upon another person’s liberty
3. Harming them in their possessions.
This last limit upon the actions of free individuals is important. Locke spends an entire chapter of the Second Treatise talking about it. It has to do with the right to property, which is arguably the most important right, while at the same time the least understood. Property rights are important enough that we will spend some time in the next chapter examining the subject. To do this we will have to come to a clear definition of property, including how it is acquired, how it is exchanged, and what right the owner has to it.
Most importantly, we have arrived at a definition of liberty, or freedom. It is the right of any person to do as they please, as long as they do not violate the equal rights of anyone else. This principle is generally referred to today as the “Non-Aggression Principle.” Political activists associate this principle with libertarians, while intellectuals associate it with Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. Certainly both movements recognize and venerate this principle, but it is important to realize that neither is its source. In fact, the Non-Aggression Principle has been articulated with very little variation by all writers in the liberal tradition, including Locke, Jefferson,10 Paine, Bastiat, Mill, and later Rand and other 20th century writers and thinkers.
By applying this principle, the most complicated societal issues become astoundingly simple. The ambiguous becomes unambiguous. The answers become clear. As we said earlier, almost every “problem” facing America today can be solved by applying the principle of freedom.
In conclusion, there are a few points that we should review for emphasis. First, the rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence and drawn out of Locke’s philosophy are unalienable. They cannot be taken away by any power on earth, including a majority vote. The reason that the founders were suspicious of democracy was because of their fear that the majority would oppress the individual by voting away the individual’s rights, especially property rights. This was the reason for the separation of powers and the limits on government authority. Even a majority vote can be a threat to freedom.
The difference between a right and a privilege is a vital concept to understand. A right is something that you are born with, that you possess merely because you exist. A privilege is something that is granted by another person, group, or a government. Our country was founded upon the principle that all people have unalienable rights that cannot be taken away, not privileges granted by their government. As John Adams so eloquently put it,
“I say RIGHTS, for such they have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government, — Rights, that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws — Rights, derived from the great Legislator of the universe.”11
There is no need to “be thankful that we have the rights that we have in America.” All people have those rights and gratitude is neither necessary nor appropriate. Rather, people are justified in demanding their rights, and any violation of them should be recognized as an act of aggression.
Second, in any conflict between individual liberty and the will of the majority, individual liberty makes no compromise. The majority has no right to violate the rights of the individual. This is to some extent merely making the first point in reverse, but it is important enough to state in more than one way. Society doesn’t have rights; individuals do. Society is nothing more than a collection of individuals, so protecting each individual in society protects society. This was also “self evident” to our founders.
Despite these undeniable truths, individual liberty is today under almost constant attack because of its perceived conflict with “the common good” or “the needs of society.” While living together and agreeing not to initiate aggression against each other seems astoundingly simple, our politicians would have us believe that there is something incredibly complicated about it. They create a world in which civil society is a maze of moral dilemmas that only their astute guidance can lead us safely through. Once individual rights and liberty are properly understood and applied, all of these supposed dilemmas disappear.
Introduction: The American Crisis
1 Paine, Thomas The American Crisis “The Crisis No. 1” December 19, 1776 from Paine Collected Writings edited by Eric Foner Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. New York, NY 1955 pg. 91
Chapter 1: What is Freedom?
1 Bastiat, Frederic The Law 1850 from The Bastiat Collection 2 Volumes Vol. 1 Ludwig Von Mises Institute Auburn, AL 2007 pg. 79
2 Jefferson, Thomas To Dupont de Nemours from Jefferson Writings edited by Merrill D. Peterson New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, 1984 pg. 1387
3 Madison, James Federalist #10 http://www.foundingfathers.info/federalistpapers/fedi.htm http://www.foundingfathers.info/federalistpapers/fed10.htm
4 Madison, James Letter to James Monroe October 5th, 1786 James Madison Center, The http://www.jmu.edu/madison/center/home.htm Phillip Bigler, Director, James Madison University Harrisonburg, VA http://www.jmu.edu/madison/center/main_pages/madison_archives/quotes/supremacy.htm
5 Declaration of Independence, United States 1776 National Archives and Records (website) http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html
6 John Locke Second Treatise on Civil Government from Two Treatises of Government C. and J. Rivington, 1824 (Harvard University Library Copy) pg. 132
7 Declaration of Independence, United States 1776 National Archives…
8 Locke Second Treatise pgs. 131-32
9 Locke Second Treatise pg. 133
10 See the subtitle to Chapter 3
11 Adams, John A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law 1765 Ashland Center for Public Affairs (website) Ashland University http://www.ashbrook.org/library/18/adams/canonlaw.html
Introduction: The American Crisis ix
Chapter 1 What is Freedom? 1
Chapter 2 Property Rights 11
Chapter 3 The Role of Government 19
Chapter 4 The State of War 41
Chapter 5 The Economics of Liberty 59
Chapter 6 The Money Monopoly 91
Chapter 7 The Non-Rights 113
Chapter 8 The Slavery Tax 125
Chapter 9 The Socialism Bubble 133
Chapter 10 The War On… 141
Chapter 11 The Media Monolith 157
Chapter 12 False Prophets of Freedom 167
Chapter 13 Extremism in the Defense of Liberty 173
Chapter 14 The Road to Freedom 179
Chapter 15 The Time is at Hand 195
End Notes 201