Are we smarter than a medieval baron?

I fear we are losing the rule of law in the United States and in the West — the idea that all are equally accountable to external standards and that even the State must respect certain boundaries.  Eight centuries ago today, one of the great expressions of these concepts was signed: Magna Carta.  The nobles who forced King John to concede these principles knew something of human nature.  For all our pretenses at modern superiority, we seem to have forgotten many of the things they knew, and upon which succeeding generations built.

Those barons who pressured a king to give his seal to a document in an English field 800 years ago could not have imagined the extraordinary impact it would have on human affairs, reshaping not just England but also America and France and even inspiring activists as far afield as Africa and China. This shows that once it had been expressed, the fundamental idea contained with Magna Carta — that restraints are required to limit officialdom’s power — could not be suppressed; the genie could not be forced back in the bottle. More importantly, it shows that freedom must be fought for over and over again. Magna Carta on its own guarantees nothing. How could it? It is merely a piece of paper. Rather, it was the human urge for more liberty, the desire to enjoy choice and freedom and a private life away from the prying eyes and barging elbows of authority, that encouraged future generations to act on Magna Carta, to demand that it be respected and expanded and made into a living, breathing, constitutional reality.

The problem we face today is profound. Firstly, respect for legal rights is in short supply, as evidenced in everything from British governments’ assaults on the right to silence and the ‘double jeopardy’ rule to America’s undermining of the Fourth Amendment through its spying on citizens. And secondly, even worse, the spirit of freedom, the urge within citizens for greater liberty and autonomy, seems weak, too. In short, the two things that guaranteed Magna Carta’s historic, humanity-changing impact — first, the rights it articulated on paper, and second, successive generations’ determination to make those rights real— are waning. And so we are seeing the gains of the Magna Carta era, of the past 800 years of pretty much non-stop struggling for greater liberty, being slowly undermined.

We need a new and serious debate on freedom, on why it’s important and why we need more of it.

To survive, freedom must be valued more than many other things, such as government largesse (which always comes with strings), baldly seeking partisan advantage or an obsession with safety (which brings fearfulness that is exploited by those who would control). Freedom is not obtained merely by the risk of soldiers’ blood. It is secured by the willingness of citizens to assume responsibility for themselves, to adhere to a set of rules that transcend our momentary whims, and to challenge anyone who would dare direct their lives for them.


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