September 22nd, 2015 // 11:21 am @ Oliver DeMille
by Oliver DeMille
Emotions and Questions
A lot of Americans are deeply frustrated. Many of them are downright angry about the direction our nation is taking. We use our power as citizens to change things—through elections. We send Congressmen and Senators to reverse things we don’t like, but they don’t do much. Why? “Because they can’t,” people tell me. “Because the president will just veto whatever they do. Or the Court will just decree whatever it wants. We’ve got no power. Our votes don’t accomplish anything.”
The Founder’s Way
The American founding fathers knew that situations like this would come up, so they wrote the Constitution in a very specific way. They gave the power of the purse strings to the House of Representatives for two vital reasons:
First, because they knew that the power to fund or defund any government action was the ultimate power in the Constitution. This power affects everything the government does. No budget equals no personnel, no staff, no petty cash, no anything. This is real teeth. And the framers gave it to the House so they would use it!
Second, the framers gave this power only to the House of Representatives. Why? Because Congressmen are elected directly by the voters, and they are elected every two years. Thus if Washington gets off track, the voters can re-constitute the entire House of Representatives every 24 months. The whole thing. And this new House can totally rewrite the budget. All of it .The House can refuse to fund anything, and that thing will go away.
The framers wanted the House to use the purse powers to defund or refuse to renew funding on things the people don’t like—such as Bush’s torture policies or secret big data spying on American citizens, or today’s Obamacare, federal funding of Planned Parenthood, the Iran deal, and other proposals at this level. That’s why the framers set up the Constitution the way they did.
Presidential vetoes, Court decisions, Senatorial refusals to confirm a presidential nomination, and House refusal to funding: these are all routine constitutional tools. And let’s be clear. The power of the purse is the exact level of extreme that the framers made it. The Court can say something’s constitutional and even say this part of government should stay open. The House can decide whether to fund that thing with $3 trillion or with 30 cents.
The framers knew that the president would have the power of the military, the Court would have the power of legal decisions, the Senate the power of treaties—and they wanted the House to have an equal power. This is the people’s power. This is the House’s power. It is pretty much their only real power. If they don’t use it, they have very little power. But if they do use it, they have the most power in Washington.
Indeed, the power of the purse, the House’s ability to simply withhold funding to the government on any new funding proposal, or renewed funding plan, is the “people’s veto” on the president and the Court. Yet today the president uses his veto power all the time, and the Court uses its decision-making power all the time, while the House almost never uses their veto power.
Why? Because when they do, the media convinces the American electorate that “shutting down the government” is somehow not part of the Constitution.
But the truth is the exact opposite. This House veto is absolutely vital.
Check and Balance
“But that’s so drastic,” some people say. “Shutting the government down is out of bounds. It’s extreme!”
Actually, it’s no more drastic or extreme than a presidential veto. Both of these powers were put in the Constitution by the framers for the same reason—the veto power to allow the president to check Congress, and the power over the purse to allow Congress to check the president.
It’s the most basic part of our governmental system. The three branches can check and balance each other. The president by veto, the Court by decision, the Senate by withholding confirmations, and the House by the power of the purse—by withholding funding. The framers did this on purpose. This is the whole point of three separate branches of government operating with checks and balances.
But the only Constitutional teeth the House has against the president is the power of the purse. And if the House never uses its Constitutional teeth against the president, then we’re living under a monarchy, not a democratic republic. The president will just do whatever he decides to do. That’s not freedom.
Our problems in Washington aren’t caused by vetoes and the checks and balances. Our problems are nearly all the result of not following the Constitution with its checks and balances. Just refuse to fund the agenda of any president who tries to use too much power (like sign a treaty with Iran by executive order instead of following the Treaty requirements in the Constitution). For the current Congress: Don’t renew funding of Obama programs until he takes you seriously. Until he stays within the Constitution. Stop funding his agenda, and he’ll stop doing whatever he wants. He’ll be forced to stop the overreach.
Stop blaming the White House, and stop blaming the Court. It’s 100% in the power of the House or the Senate. And the American citizenry needs to know this. If we don’t even know how powerful our votes make us under our Constitution, we’ll just keep getting more and more bad government.
Note: Americans need to know this. Please pass it on…
September 18th, 2015 // 7:14 am @ Oliver DeMille
Why the Republican Establishment Is Surprised
(and a bit clueless)
by Oliver DeMille
Shock and Awe
The current presidential election has left most of the Establishment speechless. They are shocked by the rise of Bernie Sanders, shocked by the success of Donald Trump in the polls, and shocked by the popularity of Ben Carson. “Shocked” may actually be too weak a word. Apoplectic, maybe?
The Establishment is also surprised by the struggles of Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker—all of whom were widely predicted to dominate this election cycle.
“Why is this happening?” is a popular question on many political news programs right now. Along with: “Will it continue?” “What will happen next?” and “Why are the voters so angry?”
The answer is fascinating. To get there, let’s start with the roots of the modern conservative movement. Initiated largely by William F. Buckley, Jr. and his colleagues in the 1950s and 1960s,[i] Conservatism 1.0 struggled, persisted, gained support slowly, and then rose to victory with the election and presidency of Ronald Reagan.
The Party of Reagan was based firmly on the view that “liberalism is bad.” In this environment, Reagan’s GOP found itself directly opposed to the Democratic Party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his progressive successors.
The ensuing debate pitted conservatism against liberalism in a few direct, simple ways: limited government versus big government, Constitutional originalism versus judicial activism, American exceptionalism versus European style internationalism, and individualism versus collectivism.
Republicans saw conservatism as good precisely because it espoused limited government, strict adherence to the Constitution, American leadership in the world, and individual freedoms. They saw liberalism as bad because it promoted big government, an activist Court, American subordination to international organizations, and widespread collectivism through higher taxes and increased government programs in all facets of life.
This was the battle of Postwar America. And conservatives saw themselves as the Keepers of Freedom and Family Values in this monumental conflict—warriors for the American Dream and the American way of life.
After the financial downgrade of the Soviet Union during the Reagan years and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the battle lines were slowly redrawn. New superpowers emerged on the world stage, and existing alliances began to unravel. Naturally, during the 1990s the old battles were replaced with new ones, and in the 2000s world and national allegiances were weakened, redirected, and reconceived.
But the hearts of many 20th Century conservatives (and liberals, for that matter), raised and steeped in the old battles, didn’t change.
A new cultural movement sprouted in the different soil after 1989. In technology, this shift was exemplified by Steve Jobs, and eventually Elon Musk. In business, the iconic figureheads were Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. And on the political front, the pioneers of a new model were Ross Perot and Ralph Nader, and later Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul.
Congressman Paul’s contribution to the new brand of conservatism that arose is hard to overstate. For example:
- It replaced Reagan’s 11th Commandment (“Thou shalt not criticize other Republicans”) with a focus on principles of freedom rather than institutional political parties.
- It walked a fine (and frequently uneasy) line between party loyalty and going independent, finally resting on the idea that independence is more important than party—but sometimes it’s possible to get both.
- It called into question widespread U.S. military interventionism.
- It reemphasized the Constitution as a central, literal theme, rather than a mere national symbol.
- It put actual free enterprise above the rhetoric of free enterprise (rhetoric that most Republican presidents had ironically combined with bigger government).
- It appealed strongly to populism—“this is the people’s government, not vice versa.”
- It switched the viewpoint of conservatism from “liberalism is bad” to “government by elite power brokers and their bureaucratic agents is bad.”
Paul himself wasn’t able to convert this revolution into a White House victory, but the revolution occurred nonetheless. And the 7th point of this revolution is perhaps the most important. It animated the Tea Parties, the elections of 2010 and 2014, and it is still growing today.
It also explains the shock of the current Republican Establishment with the ousting of Eric Cantor, the support for Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina, and the popularity of Ted Cruz in comparison to Jeb Bush or Scott Walker.
Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and most of the Republican Establishment are operating as if the GOP is still Reagan’s party. But this is debatable. A large segment of the party is now more aligned with Conservatism 2.0.
Thus the passionate battle now underway for the future of the GOP. And with each passing election cycle, the popularity of Conservatism 2.0 is increasing.
What 2.0 Conservatives Want
To these new conservatives, the idea that “liberals are bad” is SO forty years ago. The real issue now is that “government by elites” is bad.[ii] “The elite class is bad. It is corrupt, and it’s hurting us all. It is hurting America.” In fact: “Corruption is bad. And elites are corrupt.” This viewpoint is growing.
And to members of the new conservatism, Republican elites are just as bad as liberal elites. Many consider them even worse, like modern wolves in sheep’s clothing, claiming conservatism, and gaining support for their candidates and policies by invoking conservatism, while refusing to passionately or effectively fight for it.
It is important to clarify that the Ron Paul revolution didn’t win all 7 of its main themes. The new 2.0 conservatives never warmed up to items 3 and 4, for instance:
3-less U.S. military interventionism in the world
4-more emphasis on the literal words of the Constitution
But, on the other hand, they bought the following principles hook, line and sinker:
1-focus on principles of freedom rather than institutional parties
6-populism: forget “electability” and support the candidate we think will really bring about the changes we want
7-government by elites is corrupt and bad
This tectonic shift put Carson, Trump, Fiorina and Cruz at center stage.
It remains to be seen if a 2.0 candidate can become the nominee anytime soon. And even more significant is the question of whether a 2.0 president will actually apply item 5 from the list:
5-actual free enterprise is the goal, not just the rhetoric of free enterprise
Such an approach would lead to balanced budgets, reversal of the U.S. national debt, and a high-growth economy spurred by a massive rollback of anti-small business regulation. Right now many 2.0 voters are split. They’re asking themselves if Trump or Fiorina would actually lead a serious downsizing of government—or instead just expand government like past 1.0 conservative presidents.
As for Carson and Cruz, they seem clearly committed to this approach, but 2.0 conservatives wonder if they have the capacity or authentic will to actually pull it off.
If the 2.0 crowd ever coalesces around one candidate, he or she is going to be very hard to beat—in the primaries, and even in the general. A motivated 2.0 nation will be very persuasive among independents, women, and young voters. And 2.0 is very strong in the swing states. But 2.0 conservatives won’t “go for it” if they are at all uneasy about the candidate’s direction or ability. They are, in a sense, playing the long game, and won’t blow their one-shot-at-the-big-house political capital on an also-ran.
A long primary and general election fight is still ahead, and this war between conservatism 1.0 and 2.0 won’t be easily resolved. It has already turned nasty, and it will probably get a lot worse.
But if 1.0 wins, if Jeb or another Establishment candidate is the eventual nominee, this fight will rage on. Conservatism 2.0 is young, passionate, and has the benefit of a large and growing base. It may or may not get its way in 2016, but all indications are that it will eventually win the war.
When it does, expect the president it propels into the White House to alter American history as significantly and lastingly as the 1.0 movement did with Ronald Reagan.
(Read more discussion on these themes in FreedomShift, by Oliver DeMille)
[i] With significant support by additional voices including Leo Strauss, Milton Friedman, Leonard Read, Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, and Margaret Thatcher, among others.
[ii] In comparison, Liberalism 2.0, supported early on by Hobson and Mencken and Keynes, among others, and perhaps most embodied in current events by President Obama (and espoused by Bernie Sanders), frequently operates on the idea that “America is bad.” European social democracy is promoted as the alternative, the ideal, and the goal.
September 10th, 2015 // 6:30 am @ Oliver DeMille
“U.S. median income is $42,000 per year, while the European median income is $27,000. That’s close to the average difference in annual income between U.S. high school grads ($28,000) and college graduates ($45,000). And the current elite class wants America to become more like Europe. This explains much of what Washington is doing these days.”
What Is Coming
Sadly, it isn’t quite that simple. The crisis is coming.
What’s the Crisis? Imagine this: It’s the summer of 2017, and we have another career politician in the White House. On the day of the 2016 election, or even earlier, we learned that none of the anti-Establishment candidates were going to win. Instead, the media informed us that the American electorate was putting another regular politician into office.
And since inauguration day, that president has followed a path similar to earlier presidents, from Bush I and Clinton, to Bush II and Obama: the national debt is still skyrocketing, our foreign policy is a disaster, the government is growing, increased regulations attack our prosperity every month, and the Supreme Court is legislating additional policies that hurt the nation.
On top of all this, the mandates of Obamacare are really kicking in now, increasing many small business costs by 30% or more annually—and as a result, those businesses that survive are laying off large numbers of employees. Your family health insurance premiums are up many thousands of dollars a year. The economy is still struggling, with less than a 2% growth rate, and good-paying jobs are increasingly scarce. At least one or two of your close friends or family members have lost their jobs.
In other words, it’s clear that the 2016 election has changed almost nothing. Terrorist attacks are increasing in both Europe and a few targeted attacks in the United States—as Iran uses its new $100 billion dollars to fund such violence. ISIS is still spreading, and China continues to increase its naval presence around the Pacific Rim. Moreover, Putin is becoming increasingly aggressive, not just in Eastern Europe but also in Syria, the North Pole, and the Pacific.
If the new president is a Democrat, there is a strong push to increase taxes and federalize even more state-level programs. If, contrast, if the president is a Republican… well, exactly the same thing is happening.
If we vote for the same kind of candidate we’ve voted for since 1988 (a career politician), we’re going to get the same thing we’ve experienced since…you know…1988. Meaning that career politicians are going to give us the same thing that career politicians have always given us:
Increased government. Very little positive change. A continual slide toward bigger government, higher debts, and decreased individual prosperity and freedoms.
This is the crisis ahead: More of the same. Except that it’s continually a bit worse, year after year, election cycle after election cycle.
“The definition of insanity,” you remind yourself, “is to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results.” In business, the prime directive is that to actually change an organization, you have to significantly change the leadership. If career politicians keep running the White House, little is going to change. This is true.
It’s frustrating. We don’t want to believe it, because we hope things will be different this time. But each election proves that it’s the reality. Career politicians do what career politicians do. Over and over.
Specifically: whatever career politicians say as candidates, once they’re elected they do what they’ve done before. Count on it. The following presidential candidates are not going to bring much change to Washington:
- Joe Biden
- Hillary Clinton
- Jeb Bush
- Chris Christie (to his credit, Christie is openly promising to do what career politicians do: just more of the status quo)
- Marco Rubio
- Scott Walker
- John Kasich (actually, at least Kasich has balanced two major budgets—the federal budget during the 1990s, and Ohio’s budget while serving as governor; thus, he’ll likely do this again—even if he doesn’t do much else, this is a pretty good thing)
But does anyone actually believe that if Jeb Bush is elected president we’ll reverse the national debt, repeal Obamacare, or seriously send education decisions and funding back to the states, where it belongs? No way.
The above candidates are part of the system; and reaching the pinnacle of the system they’ve spent their lives supporting won’t incentivize them to drastically change things. Whatever your political views, it’s clear that those who’ve made their lives in the system aren’t likely to alter it in any significant way. Period.
The following are a lot more likely to really change things:
- Bernie Sanders
- Carly Fiorina
- Rand Paul
- Donald Trump
- Ted Cruz
- Ben Carson
Say what you want about them, but they aren’t part of the typical Washington Establishment.
If elected, would one of them actually change things?
Maybe. Maybe not. But there is at least a chance.
In contrast, with the first list above, there’s no reasonable, rational expectation of real change.
Part II: What Will the Crisis Look and Feel Like for Americans?
Beyond the question of whether or not real change will come after the 2016 election, a deeper question is this: “If it doesn’t come, what will happen?”
In other words, “Where is our current national trajectory taking us?” First of all, if real change does come, it could take a number of different directions. That’s what change does. Genuine change is almost impossible to predict, because a significant change causes so many additional, cascading, changes.
If anyone on the first list above becomes our next president, I believe we have less than a 1% chance of changing course in a serious way that really shifts our national direction. Even if someone on the second list is elected, I’m convinced we’ll have less than a 40% chance of such a course correction (and 0% if it’s Bernie Sanders).
And let’s be clear: a course correction is desperately needed. If it doesn’t come, where are we headed?
Answer: In the early 1960s, many in the Euro-American elite class adopted the idea that the U.S. was beginning to outpace the nations of Western Europe—economically, technologically, and militarily. Moreover, they calculated that such a divide would be bad for business (specifically the business of the elites, which includes both the economic endeavors of the 1% and also their political influence).
To combat this growing divide, the elites began using their institutional, fiscal, and monetary influence to make the United States more like Europe. They began in earnest by dropping the gold standard in 1971, and providing an influx of elite money into higher education donations and endowments, and simultaneously with increased investment in and ownership of major media outlets.
Influenced by these funds and those who provided them, education began spreading the idea that America should be more like Europe, and the graduates of these programs increasingly dominated the campus scene through the seventies and eighties. By 1987, Allan Bloom decried what amounted to the Europeanized politicization of higher education in his bestselling book The Closing of the American Mind.
Choosing a Dream
Media increasingly reinforced this same message—“America should be more like Europe”—in stories and reports, from the major national newspapers to the Big 3 television networks. Nearly all cable channels and Establishment-supported Internet news outlets followed suit.
Among Establishment policy makers, Samuel Huntington’s writings on “Civilizations” and Francis Fukayama’s “End of History” essays pointed U.S. financial-, domestic-, and foreign-policy institutions (and bureaucracies) in the same direction.
Where does this leave us today? The “American Dream” includes the ideal that each household should achieve home ownership, financial independence (at least by the time of retirement), cars, savings, education for the kids, and a better lifestyle for each additional generation. In contrast, a middle class family in Europe typically lives in an apartment, has fewer children than American families, owns (on average) less than one car, and expects decreasing financial opportunities for coming generations.
To put this in financial terms, the U.S. median income is $42,000 per year, while the Western European median annual income is $27,000.
While it may not appear so at first, these numbers are drastically different—especially if you are applying for a home or vehicle loan, trying to start a business, deciding how many children to have, or funding a child’s college education. Indeed, an American family of three making the European median income of $27,000 a year typically lives in an apartment and has approximately $4,050 a year or less in disposable income. The U.S. median income of $42,000 upgrades the family to a home and $12,180 in annual disposable income.
That’s roughly the same as the average difference in annual median income between U.S. high school grads ($28,000) and college graduates ($45,000). That’s right: the direction of U.S. median income is headed toward less than the average wages of high school grads.
This comparison is not overstated. This is where we’re headed. Of course, the affluent classes won’t suffer this same fate, but a lot more Americans will become part of the struggling class. Just like in Europe.
Who we vote for matters.
If we want real change, we need to vote for something different.
August 27th, 2015 // 10:00 am @ Oliver DeMille
The Questions of Today
The professional political and media class is surprised (“shocked” may be more accurate) by what they are witnessing right now in the U.S. presidential campaign. Most of their predictions are turning out to be wrong, and much of their commentary is consistently off.
What is going on? And why is it happening?
The answer is fascinating. America is currently witnessing a different kind of politics–not because Washington has changed, but rather because the voters are taking a very different approach than they have in the past.
In a nutshell: a huge number of voters are simply demanding that politicians do something very different. This can be summed up in the following words, spoken directly to our politicians:
“Why won’t you just do what you said you’d do?”
Lies from the Left
This is a big deal. Voters are frustrated with the inability (or unwillingness) of politicians to simply deliver on their promises. For example, President Obama promised that under his health care law, we would be able to keep our doctor if we wanted to. We would also be able to keep the same health care providers. And our costs wouldn’t go up very much, if at all.
These all turned out to be false. Many people aren’t allowed to keep their same doctor or health care providers. And in 2015 insurance premiums went up around 30% for many companies and families—in addition to major increases already in 2014. With the additional details that kick in during 2016, premiums will go much higher in the next two years.
The President also promised that his policies would bring more jobs. But the reality is that while the unemployment rate has gone down, the large majority of people with new jobs obtained during the Obama era are making a lot less each month than they did before. The promise of more jobs turned out to be technically true, but it feels totally false, like something only a lawyer or a genie could make up.
Lies from the Right
And Republicans haven’t done any better. Voters were promised that if they elected Republicans in 2012 and 2014, these Congressmen would repeal Obamacare and seriously tackle the national debt. The electorate responded by putting Republicans into Congress in record numbers—in both of these midterm elections.
But once in office, the GOP promises were promptly forgotten. No repeal. No debt reduction. Voters know that Congress can defund programs at will, and can even overcome a veto by shutting down non-essential government functions to get a handle on the debt and/or defund Obamacare. This takes tenacity and guts, but it works.
Instead, voters who put Republicans into the majority in both houses are lectured by Boehner and McConnell about what “can and can’t” be done. But Boehner, McConnell and their allies didn’t do the honorable thing and loudly promote such lectures before the elections. Rather, they boldly promised big changes and then smugly turned their backs on such promises once elected. Ted Cruz was right to call this a “lie.” Voters feel increasingly duped by the political class.
The top leaders in both parties simply didn’t follow through on what they said they would do.
Just Do What You Promised
All of this is front and center in the voters’ minds right now. They don’t want to elect politicians, because they don’t believe what politicians promise. Why should they? Both parties have failed, repeatedly, to fulfill their promises. Most people have reached the conclusion that this is just the way politicians are now. They don’t do what they promise.
In voter logic, the only intelligent response is to elect non-politicians. To reject politicians and find people who will just do what they say they’ll do. To find someone—anyone—who simply tells the truth and then does it.
Thus anyone who looks even remotely like a politician is suspect. For a growing number of voters, everything a politician-looking candidate says during the campaign is probably not going to happen after the election.
So any candidate that seems to fit this bill, doesn’t get much support. This is a real problem for Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, etc. It’s also a problem for anti-establishment candidates like constitutionalist Rand Paul and tea partier Marco Rubio—they just seem too much like Washington insiders.
The candidates who are surprising the political pros are those who don’t seem much like politicians at all. Thus very different-sounding candidates like Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz have piqued the electorate’s interest.
“Will one of them just do what he/she is promising?” This is the question many American voters are asking right now.
The Media vs. The Electorate
The media focuses on things like policy details, tone, offensive behavior, and stances on the issues—but most voters don’t care much about these things as much as electing someone who will do what they said they’d do. They’re used to candidates who are politically correct, talk a lot about policy positions, but then get elected and fail to deliver what they promised.
With such a track record, why should voters care about policy plans? They’re going to be forgotten anyway.
Instead, voters are now trying to feel out the candidates, hoping that one of them is the kind of person who will actually just do what he/she promised—even after the election.
If voters think they’ve found such a person, they don’t even have to agree with him/her on every policy. They’ll look past differences, if they can just get someone who will deliver.
Media and political professionals who don’t figure this out are in for a lot more shocking surprises, because the last two decades of hearing promises during campaigns, getting excited to vote based on such promises, and then seeing your chosen candidate get elected but fail to do what he promised.… Well, voters are just plain sick of it.
Voters are too smart now. They’ve been fooled too many times in recent elections.
If they don’t think any of the candidates will follow through on promises, voters will turn off and stay home on election day. As a result, the typical establishment candidates will win. But if voters really believe that a candidate will deliver—he or she is going to ignite a powerful following.
August 19th, 2015 // 2:36 pm @ Oliver DeMille
Steps to Freedom
I read another great book today, and it rekindled my sense of hope for the future. If you care about freedom, you’ve got to read it! This new classic is Liberty’s Secrets by Joshua Charles, and it is…
But I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s a story here, an important one. And I need to tell it in order to do justice to this book. In a world of brief sound bites and too frequently shallow media and educational conversations, a great book is easily overlooked. Such greats all too often go unnoticed because we live in an era of constant—aggressive—distraction. So to introduce a genuinely great book, we need to get this right. Here goes…
I. The Great Books
I was a young boy when first it happened, old enough to ride my bicycle to the library on hot summer afternoons and find interesting books to read, but young enough that high school sports and summer trainings weren’t yet part of my daily routine. One day under the memorable breeze of the town library’s large swamp cooler I came across a long shelf of books that boldly called themselves “The Great Books”. I stopped and stared. I re-read the title, then pondered.
“These can’t be the only great books,” I reasoned to myself. “There must be others.” Intrigued, I pulled out a volume and perused the title page, then skimmed through several chapters at the beginning of the book. I was impressed by the small print, the columns and footnotes, and the sheer quantity of big, unfamiliar words. They were downright intimidating.
I marveled a bit, rubbing my fingers along the cloth-covered bindings. I knew I would read these books some day. I just knew it.
I remember nothing specific about which volumes I investigated that day, but I skimmed many of them, reading a sentence here and another there. The afternoon passed, and I eventually returned the last volume I’d removed to its place on the shelf and went to the front counter to check out the L’Amour novel I’d selected for the week’s reading.
We lived in the desert, and it was a very hot summer, so during the exertions of my bike ride home I forget about the “Great Books”. But each time I returned to the library, I noticed them again. It seemed like none of them were ever checked out, and I could well believe it. They were truly daunting, with their gold foil lettering, fancy author names, and massive domination of shelf space.
II. Fast Forward
Today I just finished reading a truly great book on freedom, and I smiled widely as I completed the last few lines and closed the book. I removed the dust jacket and ran my fingers over the sleek black hardcover with the red foil print. “I was right, that day,” I thought to myself.
Then I realized I had been right on both counts. I would, in fact, come to read the whole set someday. I couldn’t have known at the time that I would re-read The Great Books many times, teach them extensively in multiple university, high school, and graduate level courses, and spend many hours discussing their content with colleagues, business executives, students, professionals, family members, and friends. The Great Books volumes have become dear friends over the years, and I have returned to them often for heated debates with their authors or to rehash unfinished questions in the “Great Conversation”.
But I was right about the other thing as well: there are great books beyond those in Britannica’s 54 volume set. And when I encounter an additional great book, I always feel a sense of excitement. Great books are great because they are important. That’s the major criterion. They have to be truly significant, to add meaning to our world—to innovate something that wasn’t there before the book brought it to life.
III. What Makes “Great”?
Over the decades I’ve experienced several great books beyond those from the “official list,” and they always leave an impression. Like The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom, The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler, or The Five Thousand Year Leap by W. Cleon Skousen. Such books, like those by Bastiat or Austen, simply must be added to list. Along with Solzhenitsyn’s works.
In recent years I’ve come across several additional great books, like Andy Andrew’s The Final Summit, Chris Brady’s Rascal, Stephen Palmer’s Uncommon Sense, Orrin Woodward’s Resolved, Judith Glaser’s Conversational Intelligence, or Henry Kissinger’s On China. I also studied an old great book I hadn’t ever read before, The Early History of Rome, by Livy, and found greatness in its pages as well. When you read a book that is truly great, it’s a moving experience.
Such books come along rarely, so when they do it is important to pay attention. But what makes a book genuinely great? After all, greatness is a very high standard. It can’t just be good. As Jim Collins reminded us, good is too often the enemy of great.
Nor can it simply be well written. It can’t merely be accurate, detailed, beautiful, or interesting. More is necessary. It can be one, a few, or all of these things, but to be truly great, it must be also be transformational. It must change you, as you read.
IV. A New Great Book!
When I started reading Joshua Charles’ book a few days ago, I didn’t know I was in for such a treat. I had already enjoyed his earlier bestselling work, so I was ready to learn. I got my pen and highlighter out, and opened the cover. But as I read I realized that this book is truly very important. Needed. And profound.
Then, as I kept reading, I noticed that I was feeling something. A change. A different perspective. A re-direction. I was experiencing…the feelings that always accompany greatness.
Charles notes in several places that as a member of the Millennial generation he felt compelled to share this book with the world. Why? Because, in his words: “I wrote this book for one reason, and one reason only: to reintroduce my fellow countrymen to the Founders of our country and the vision of free society they articulated, defended, and constructed, in their own words.”
As a member of Generation X, I was thrilled to see a Millennial take this so seriously—and accomplish it so effectively. Even more importantly, as I read I noticed something very important, subtle but profound. Charles doesn’t make the mistake of so many modern authors who write to the experts and professionals in a field. His scholarship is excellent, and he goes a step further. He has a more important audience than mere political or media professionals. He writes to the people, the citizens, the voters, the butchers and bakers and candlestick makers—the hard-working people who make this nation go, including the artists, scientists, teachers, executives and leaders.
In so doing, he is a natural Jeffersonian, speaking the important principles of freedom, culture, economics, and leadership to a nation of people—not merely to politicos or aristos, but to everyman. To underscore this (and I doubt it was a conscious decision on his part, but rather his core viewpoint), his word choice refers not to “the American voter” but rather to “we the people.” He considers himself not merely the expert, but one of us, one of the people.
I could have hugged him for this, had he been here in person. We have far too few freedom writers today who see themselves truly as part of the citizenry. When they do come along, albeit rarely, I feel a sense of kinship and I know that their hearts are in the right place. Jefferson would be proud. For example, Charles wrote:
“We no longer know where we came from, the grand story we fit into, and the great men and women who inspired the noble vision which birthed the United States of America, the first nation in history to be founded upon the reasoned consent of a people intent on governing themselves….
“Additionally, few of us are well-read enough (a problem our educational system seems blithely unconcerned with) to discuss the lessons of the human experience (often simply called ‘history’)…”
Freedom, the classics, voracious reading, leadership, and the future—all rolled into one. “This is my kind of author,” I realized, once again. “These are the themes I emphasize when I write.” So did Jefferson. And Skousen, and Woodward. No wonder I love this book.
The Current Path
More than profound, Charles’ book is also wise. Belying his Millennial generation youth, he speaks like an orator or sage from Plutarch when he warns:
“Liberty is difficult work. It is fraught with risks, with dangers, with tempests and storms. It is a boisterous endeavor, an effort for the brave and the enterprising…”
These latter words have stayed with me since I read them several days ago. I keep remembering them. Boisterous. Brave. Enterprising.
These are the traits of a free people. In classical Greece, among the ancient Israelites, in the Swiss vales, the Saracen camps, the Anglo-Saxon villages, and the candlelight reading benches of the American founders—wherever freedom flourished. Yet today we train up a nation of youth to be the opposite. To fit in (not boisterous). To avoid risk (not brave). To focus on job security above all else (not enterprising).
If this trajectory continues, our freedoms will continue to decline.
Where and When
Speaking of freedom, Charles calls us to immediate action with his characteristic humility, depth, and conviction: “We either pass it [liberty] on to our posterity as it was passed down to us, or it dies here and now.”
Here and now? Really?
Is it that immediate? Is it truly this urgent? Is it really up to us?
The answer is clear: Yes.
Yet, it is.
“He gets it.” I smile and take a deep breath. Then I whisper to myself: “Another great book!”
I hold the book sideways and look at the many pages where I have turned down the corners. Dozens of them. Just for fun, I open one of them and read:
“…we have every reason to be doubtful of, skeptical about, and disdainful toward the notion that Caesar [government] can solve all our problems.”
I nod. When freedom is under attack, leaders rise up from among the people. This book is part of that battle.
“The Great Books indeed.” I grin as I say the words.
I turn to another page with a dog-eared corner and read Charles’ words:
“‘Society is endangered not by the great corruption of the few, but by the laxity of all,’ Tocqueville had noted, and on this he was in complete agreement with the Founders.”
And now, I note, with at least one Millennial.
I feel a sense of building hope for the future. “The Millennials are beginning to lead,” I say with reverence.
“This is big. And if this book is any indication of what’s to come…
“It’s about time,” I say aloud.
Then, slowly, “Everyone needs to read this book.”
*Liberty’s Secret by Joshua Charles is available on Amazon