Freedom and Decline

For the first time in memory, the United States had severe restrictions on individual freedom in place during the Jewish celebration of Passover—a holiday that, by tradition, is associated with freedom and celebrations with family.

Yet, strange as it may seem, especially to those who do not read the Old Testament in Hebrew, the word “freedom”—heruth—does not appear anywhere in the Old Testament, including the story of the Exodus from Egypt. A similar word—haruth—appears later in the story, which the Sages eventually interpreted as “freedom.” But this word, as well as the Sages’ interpretation of it, carries a connotation far different from present conceptions of freedom—one that we desperately need to recover: namely, that freedom comes with strong, precisely defined obligations.

What Kind of Freedom?

The Israelites were not “freed” from being slaves (avadim) to do anything they desired. Rather, in Exodus 9 and 10, G-d instructed Moses explicitly to tell the Pharaoh to no longer keep the tribe-in-the-making as slaves to him, but to let them become “slaves to Me” (yaaviduni).   

The English translations of these passages read as “and then they will worship me”—a bad translation, reminding of the Italian saying traduttore, traditore (“translator, traitor.”). Whereas the word “slave” is defined by laws and regulations, the term “worship” is vague (expressing reverence, adoration, and the execution of religious rites) and contractually imprecise. By contrast, the original text states explicitly that the tribe-in-the-making would replace a contractual status to an earthly authority with one to a Higher authority. The new relationship comes to be sharply defined when Moses descends from the mountain with the Ten Commandments engraved in stone, eight of them being explicit, sharply defined “noes,” having nothing to do with adoration or rituals.  

The implication of the text is that freeing people from slavery to earthly authorities does not mean that they are now set free for a world where anything goes. Rather, freedom requires becoming subject to a Higher authority, and so the Sages quickly identified freedom with the words engraved on the tablets Moses brought back from the mountain. Exodus 32:16 reads, “the inscription was God’s inscription, engraved (haruth) on the tablets,” using a word spelled exactly as “freedom” (heruth), only with different punctuation. The Sages then stated: “Read not ‘engraved’ (haruth) but ‘freedom’ (heruth).” The “free man” is one who chooses to do his best to understand the law and comply with its instructions.

Close reading of the rest of the text shows that the story is about far more than freedom: it is also about the creation of a society from scratch, capable of withstanding the eventual decline that comes with affluence over many generations: “When you beget children and children’s children, and you will be long-established in the land, and you become corrupt and make a graven image. . . you will be utterly destroyed” (Deut. 4:25-6). Later, in Deuteronomy 8, the text is even more explicit:

When you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget. . . who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. . . . You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.”

But if they do not remember the covenant, it warns, they “will surely be destroyed.”

This idea of generational decline has preoccupied historians ever since, and it was exactly what the American Founding Fathers were worried about too. The solution they came up with was a mixed constitution, drawing on ancient Greek and Roman observers’ models, combined with upholding the Old Testament’s view that certain obligations are required to sustain freedom. Both conditions are now seriously weakened.

Affluence, Decline, and the Mixed Constitution

Long before the Founding Fathers, observers such as Aristotle, Plato, and Polybius thought that a mixed constitution, defined by checks and balances, would prevent a society from lapsing into affluence-induced corruption and decline.  

Polybius’ Histories elaborated such a generational view of history. He reached his conclusion by distinguishing between three forms of government: In a kingdom, the king either rules justly or becomes a tyrant. When a group of men rules, they can be either the best and wisest (the aristocrats) or corrupt oligarchs. The third option—a popular majority—can constitute a democracy with civic order and rule of law, or can become mob rule.

Unless features of the three forms of government are mixed, they will all likely end badly because, as Polybius explains, the handing down of wealth and privileges to future generations is done without the latter understanding the disciplined mindset, responsibility, and obligations that created the well-being to start with.

Kingdoms and aristocracies become corrupt because succession goes by genetic accident. The rulers’ offspring grows up in power and affluence, spends extravagantly, and loses the people’s goodwill. Democracy is not immune to such declines either. Future generations inherit the privileges of democracy without effort and forget what brought those privileges about to start with. The venally ambitious rise by bribing the masses who vote, and most lose sight of the long-term impact of such bribes until it is too late. Civic cohesion weakens and mob rule and violence begin. All affluence-induced generational declines end in violence.

Mixed constitutions, incorporating elements of the three distinct forms of government, prevent such declines, these observers thought. Polybius used the Roman constitution as an example, where consuls were “commanders-in-chief,” (an aspect of monarchy) limited by the senate controlling the purse (an aspect of “aristocracy”) to ensure accountability; the two were, in turn, controlled by the people, voting on laws, and ratifying alliances and treaties.

It turns out that unless obligations and convictions are transmitted forcefully through education—which must start at home—the generational decline is set in motion. 

Such a mixed constitution, he hoped, would prevent future generations’ lapse into corruption, wars, and revolutions that each form of government separately could not. With each class overseeing the others and with the power to check their abuses, no ruling class could as easily slip into the life of ease and corruption that wealth was sure to bring. Whether or not he gave an accurate description of ancient Rome, his views influenced the Founding Fathers, who argued endlessly about Polybius’ mixed constitution and its ability to diminish the chances of complacent future generations.

John Adams, in his A Defence of the Constitutions, devoted a chapter to Polybius’ mixed constitution, attributing Rome’s lasting greatness to its separation of powers. And during the Federal Convention in 1787, Alexander Hamilton’s concern was that “if we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy.”

Polybius, though, also invokes Tyche, the goddess of chance, when discussing the people’s ability to sustain checks and balances. No institutions are perfect or foolproof, and none can guarantee its own survival. So when, after signing the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin exited the hall and a woman shouted, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

It turns out that some of the truths the Founders relied upon were not always “self-evident.” The utility of the mixed constitution is one example. While it may be helpful, the prevention of gradual decline and the “keeping” of the republic also require those strong obligations of the Old Testament’s understanding of freedom. Indeed, as Thomas Jefferson wondered, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”

Whereas neither the Greek and Roman historians, nor many historians ever since, dealing with the rise and decline of nations, mention adherence to obligations as an additional requirement to prevent decline, the Exodus story and the Declaration of Independence, in its appeal to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” do just that. It turns out that unless obligations and convictions are transmitted forcefully through education—which must start at home—the generational decline is set in motion.   

American Decline

In a 1970 essay, “Whose Country Is America?” Eric Hoffer anticipated features of affluence-induced decline with startling precision. He started his analysis with “the conspicuousness of the young”—that is, the baby boomers, the rise of whom might be thought of as Polybius’ “chance” event. “They have become more flamboyant, more demanding, more violent, more knowledgeable and more experienced,” he wrote. “The general impression is that nowadays the young act like the spoiled children of the rich.”

He attributed these changes to the “ordeal of affluence,” stating that wealth without work “creates a climate of disintegrating values with its fallout of anarchy.” Among the poor, this takes the form of street crime; among the affluent, of “insolence on the campus”—both are “sick forms of adolescent self-assertion.” As a result, “‘men of words’ and charismatic leaders come into their own,” while “the middle class is bungling the job” of maintaining social order.

The “phenomenal increase of the student population”—enrollment in colleges and universities would more than triple between 1958 and 1978—created a critical mass: “For the first time in America, there is a chance that alienated intellectuals, who see our way of life as an instrument of debasement and dehumanization, might shape a new generation in their own image.”

Hoffer then notes that the problem is that this “intellectual does not want to be left alone. . . . He wants to influence affairs, have a hand in making history, and feel important.” Common people, however, “know that at present money cannot cure crime, poverty, etc., whereas the social doctors go on prescribing an injection of so many billions for every social ailment.”

In the less Balkanized, less “hyphenated” America of 1970, the combination of Hoffer’s erudition and his aversion to elitism was not as unusual as it seems today, with our sharp political divide between the self-declared “erudite” (even though they are certified by an academia with ever-lowering standards) and Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables.” Recall that in the 1960s John F. Kennedy had been skeptical of intellectuals who surrounded him. Arthur Schlesinger noted that JFK had “considerable respect for the experience of businessmen,” which “gave them clues to the operations of the American economy which his intellectuals, for all their facile theories, did not possess.”

Later presidents became less skeptical and used facile theories—such as “macro-economics” (or, as I have long been calling it, “macro-astrology”) and “exporting democracy”—to rationalize ever-increasing domestic and foreign spending, all bringing about costly domestic and foreign instabilities.

It is here that the mixed constitution comes in to prevent society from digging itself into deeper holes. Over the last few decades, observers described the increasing disconnect between the emerging “ruling classes,” or “the inside the Beltway mandarin class”—as the Wall Street Journal labeled them some 40 years ago—and the rest of the people. It turns out that throwing money at problems in accordance with facile theories ended up not only letting large swaths of society fall behind, but also weakening the institutions that defined the US, among others by creating “rights” in the name of “freedom”—while forgetting that freedom comes with obligations and a sense of responsibility.

The mixed constitution offers a remedy by restoring the negotiating powers of people who fell behind. By voting for a president—the “monarchical” aspect of our constitution, they can chasten the “ruling class” after it has failed to be accountable and undermined a sense of responsibility and the full conception of freedom.   

Hoffer concluded his essay by arguing that, “We must deflate the pretensions of self-appointed elites. These elites will hate us no matter what we do, and it is legitimate for us to help dump them into the dustbin of history.” But merely discarding the elites is not enough to prevent future affluence-induced declines: It is also necessary to prevent the weakening of the link between the mixed constitution and the original meaning of freedom. This is the message that got lost during the last few decades of heavily subsidized noises—noises that reflected those facile theories rationalizing the weakening of the cords of responsibility and obligation, though they once helped define the unique American tribe. It was, after all, only the second tribe in history brought about by two engraved documents—just on paper, rather than stone.