Tuesday, August 27, 2019

When Liberty Nearly Triumphed: The Unimplemented Petition of Right

History offers a catalogue of freedom’s victories over the centuries and millennia: Hammurabi, Moses, Greco-Roman political thought, the Magna Carta, the Tübinger Vertrag, the English Bill of Rights of 1689, the United States Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the United States Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation, to name only a few.

But freedom has also had some big defeats.

In 1628, the British Parliament was frustrated by King Charles I, who, like James I before him, claimed absolute authority for himself as monarch. Charles did violence to the concept of political liberty, which had been around since even before the Magna Carta of 1215.

Parliament wanted to defend the people’s freedom against an overly ambitious king. To do this, Sir Edward Coke, a leader in Parliament and a long-time supporter of limits on royal power, suggested that Parliament draft a document defining the rights of the people and defining curbs on the king’s power.

Coke, whose surname rhymes with ‘cook’ despite its spelling, supervised the assembly of a truly brilliant document, as historian John Barry writes:

Commons adopted Coke’s suggestion, and he was central in drafting the petition. It incorporated the earlier resolutions prohibiting forced loans, benevolences, or “any tax, tallage, aid, or other like charge not set by common consent, in parliament.” It prohibited billeting soldiers in homes and the exercise of martial law in peace. It required honoring writs of habeas corpus. And it reaffirmed Magna Carta and associated statutes, reaffirmed the principle older than Magna Carta that “no freeman may be taken or imprisoned or be disseized of his freehold or liberties … or in any manner destroyed, but by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land … [and] that no man, of what estate or condition that he be, should be put out of his land or tenements, nor taken, nor imprisoned, nor disinherited nor put to death without being brought to answer by due process of law … no offender of what kind so ever is exempted from the proceedings to be used.”

England was on the verge of a major breakthrough: another increase in legal rights for citizens, another round of limitations on the royal government.

Both houses of Parliament approved the text. It was sent to Charles II for approval. Why would a monarch accept boundaries on his power? Charles needed Parliament to approve a budget to fund some of his military adventures on the continent. So there was a reason for him to agree, and a chance that he would.

But Charles at first refused to agree to the Petition of Right. After discussions, he begrudgingly agreed to it, but then almost immediately reneged.

The Petition of Right didn’t manage to achieve a significant increase of freedom for English citizens in 1628. It served a purpose, however, inasmuch as it cast a bright light on the king’s unwillingness to honor the people’s liberty.

The king’s refusal to embrace the Petition of Right was one of several causes which ultimately led to the English Civil War (1642 to 1651), and led to the king’s beheading.

Both the English Civil War and the abdication of James II (1688) laid the groundwork for the eventual adoption of the English Bill of Rights (1689). The ideas in the Bill of Rights were similar to the ideas in the Petition of Rights.

After these ideas were first proposed, it took an additional 61 years before the rights and liberties of the English people were finally codified.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Free Enterprise Fuels Human Dignity: ‘Natural’ Does Not Mean ‘Good’

Human nature tends toward favoritism and chauvinism. People are naturally partial toward those who are somehow similar to them: in terms of age, race, gender, income level, etc.

In short, human nature is not fair.

Our sense of justice — our idea that people should receive equal opportunities, have the right to express political opinions, and be able to bargain freely in economic situations — are in direct contradiction to human nature.

Justice is a learned behavior, as historian Jonah Goldberg writes:

The idea that we should presume strangers are not only inherently trustworthy but also have innate dignity and rights does not come naturally to us. We have to be taught that — carefully taught. The free market is even more unnatural, because it doesn’t just encourage us to see strangers to be tolerated; it encourages us to see strangers as Customers.

Human nature, left unchecked, can and often does, veer into bigotry and racism.

But the free enterprise system nudges people away from bigotry and racism. The manager of a shoe store wants to sell shoes, and doesn’t care about the race, gender, income level, or age of the customers. The manager will also want to engender goodwill, and thereby repeat customers, for the shoe store, and will therefore will want to make sure that the customers are treated politely and have an enjoyable shopping experience.

The free market is antithetical to racism.

The invention of money was one of the greatest advances in human liberation in all of recorded history because it lowers the barriers to beneficial human interaction. It reduces the natural tendency to acquire things from strangers through violence by offering the opportunity for commerce. A grocer may be bigoted toward Catholics, Jews, blacks, whites, gays, or some other group. But his self-interest encourages him to overlook such things. Likewise, the customer may not like the grocer, but the customer’s self-interest encourages her to put such feelings aside if she wants to buy dinner. In a free market, money corrodes caste and class and lubricates social interaction.

The salutary forces of natural rights and limited government are confusingly called “liberalism” — more accurately, “classical liberalism,” which differs from left liberalism, social liberalism, neoliberalism, and modern liberalism.

Confusing terminology aside, limited government gives rise to free markets, and natural rights give rise to equal opportunity.

A strong and powerful government becomes the instrument of the sinister aspects of human nature: tribalism, sectarianism, ethnocentrism. A centralized and controlling government will divide people into categories, and assign priorities to those categories.

Natural rights speak to a person’s humanity — regardless of demographic variables — inasmuch as all humans desire to be free, regardless of gender, income level, race, or age. The desire for liberty is one of the few truly universal human values.