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Bob Dylan was wrong

January 13, 2017

I play the guitar. That sounds pretty cool, right? It’s just not quite true. The truth is, I play the guitar, but not all that well. I still enjoy it, but it’s doubtful the people who hear me playing enjoy it as much as I do. Most of the time they manage to avoid throwing things, so that’s a plus.

I own an old Yamaha 6 string “dreadnought.” Modeled after the Martin guitars of bluegrass legend, it has a relatively dark tone and has most of its “punch” in the middle to low range (in bluegrass music, the guitar was traditionally responsible for playing a low end rhythm). Both because of the guitar, and as a matter of personal preference (before you ask, I have no idea what in impersonal preference might be), I play mostly bluegrass, old “make your ears bleed” country and 1960s and earlier folk music. Which brings us to the title of this post.

In 1964, Bob Dylan released an album entitled “The Times They Are a-Changin.” It included the title song for the album. Over the years, a lot of artists have covered the song. After all, it was written by Dylan. I have the chords and lyrics on my computer. I won’t include the chords, but here are the lyrics as they appear on azlyrics.com.

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

It was one of the first folk songs I learned and to this day I enjoy playing and singing it. There’s only one problem. It’s a lie. Oh, it has always been true I believe that “up and coming” generations challenge the standards, norms and mores of the generation(s) that preceded them. It’s also true that some of those sometimes change from one generation to the next. So, we can look back to the 1960s and see how sexual norms and mores have changed.  The temptation, I believe, is to suggest some things even more basic to a society or nation than sexual practices have changed. To wit, some people would suggest there was a fundamental change in government as a result of the 60s. I disagree, especially if we are talking about substance rather than style. Here’s what I mean.

I frequently talk with people who tell me we have reached a point in history when, finally and at long last, freedom is the norm for most of the world. Typically, I hear this from North Americans (especially Americans and Canadians) and others from the West. It simply isn’t true, and those from most of the rest of the world know it. The norm, both now and historically, is for governments and social institutions to seek to always increase their power and influence over citizens. This has not changed. Nor has their been a significant change in the willingness of citizens, including those from the West, to go along with it. It doesn’t matter if we are discussing the a third world dictator, Vladimir Putin, the democratic-socialist policies of Bernie Sanders, the progressive policies of Hillary Clinton, or the nationalist policies of Donald Trump. None of them can achieve what they want, or have any hope of providing what they promise, without an increase in both governmental power and the power and influence of various social institutions (which institutions those might be vary depending on who and what policies are under consideration). To go further, I submit most of those in positions of power and influence like it this way.

You might disagree, but consider the following. Hillary Clinton’s two biggest challengers were both at least portrayed as populist candidates, and both faced withering attacks from her campaign. And yet, surely a populist would gain the endorsement of enough people of prestige and influence to win handily. After all, our politicians and others with power are interested in an increase in personal liberty for all citizens, right? Apparently not, given the treatment Sanders apparently received at the hands of Clinton’s campaign and the outcome of the general election.

“What about Trump’s win? Isn’t that evidence of an increase in individual freedom?” Really? At what point did The Orange One mention that as a goal? Who has he nominated for his Cabinet that might lead one to suggest such a thing? The obvious answer is “Ah, but he was a populist candidate, too.” True enough. It does nothing to change the nature of his Cabinet picks or the things on which he seems to be focused. Populist candidates are often nationalists, and nationalists tend to have an “us vs. them” point of view. That doesn’t lend itself well to promoting individual liberty. So, while I think there is some value in having a populist win, history doesn’t suggest liberty for all will now prevail here or in countries with whom we have even friendly relations.

Progressives and modern liberals would argue that their political philosophies are new and will increase liberty if we only allow them to institute more of them. The philosophies we find in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are old and outdated, we are told. This is fundamentally false. It is the same claim made by the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. It was false, then, too and he had a PhD in political science from Johns Hopkins. When he became President, the Declaration was only about 150 years old and the Constitution was far less than that. The claims of the Enlightenment thinkers, that people have “unalienable” rights that derive simply from being human, that it is the role of government to preserve (not provide, but preserve) these rights, that legitimate (the Founders said “just”) governmental power derives from the express consent of the citizens, and that government must be both restrained and constrained, were radical when proposed. They were radical when Wilson was elected. They remain radical now. Most governments of the world reject the ideas, including most Western governments. Those in the West simply pay the ideas greater lip service. I say this if only because they are incapable of delivering on all their promises without ever greater control of an ever-increasing number of people.

One way of increasing control and of increasing those over whom a country or a country’s leaders have control, is through empire building. That, like the tendency of governments to seek to increase their power in general, has been the norm throughout history. Whether we speak of growing Russian influence, a Caliphate in the Middle-East, a stronger EU centered in Brussels or American interventionism they are all merely empire building by other names.

Of greater concern than the tendency of government to increase its power, is the willingness of people to go along with it. Why is this? I believe it is because liberty and freedom require of people that they accept some things most find unacceptable. First, real liberty requires that I insist on it not just for myself, but for others. More importantly, I must insist on it for those with whom I disagree – those “other people.” Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before government changes hands and I and those like me suddenly become those other people. In a worst case scenario, that’s when we all get to line up for our trip in the boxcars.

Second, liberty requires that I embrace both responsibility and accountability. I’ve said before that these are the keys to freedom. They also cause many, perhaps even most, people a great deal of psychological discomfort. As a result, most people will do anything to avoid being free.

Third, it requires that I accept no substitutes for freedom. While an orderly and peaceful society requires that I accept some limitations on my individual liberty, it is essential that I know what those limitations are, that I agree to them and that they infringe as little as possible upon my liberty. I must not forget that everything I allow or require government of some institution to do for me, requires that I cede to them some degree of self-determination. It is imperative that I and my fellow citizens determine what freedom means. Otherwise, when combined with my desire to avoid the discomfort of responsibility and accountability, I can be told I am free when I am not and will allow those who tell me this to do whatever they wish to me.

There is a sense in which Hillary Clinton lost because her political agenda was at odds with those of many Americans. It was also at odds with freedom and liberty. Sadly, many people who until November 8 were small government conservatives will probably give in to the temptation to use the same governmental power the use of which they decried when it was in the hands of their political adversaries. When they do, and they will, remember they are no more friends of liberty than are those who lost the election.

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3 Comments
  1. Responsibility and accountability are an anathema to the left… Just sayin…

    • They are an anathema to a lot of people. Sadly, that seems to include a fair number of people who declare themselves to be of libertarian or conservative persuasion. Everybody wants to be free – until it becomes inconvenient.

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