For Throw Back Thursday a republished column from 2005
“The real destroyer of liberties is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits.”
I doubt the great Lakota chief Sitting Bull had read Plutarch but he clearly understood the Greek philosophers meaning. In 1872, the American Government attempted to lure the hunting bands of Sioux Indians onto the reservation by plying them with $500,000 in food and clothing. The offer was tempting. Winters on the prairie were harsh and food was often scarce. Sitting Bull had understood for a long time, however, that the offers of food and clothing from the United States government came with a price and the cost was liberty and autonomy. He therefore sought to have as little to do with the American government as possible, seeking instead to live as he had always lived – as a free man no matter how cold he got.
Another great Sioux warrior, Red Cloud, was of a different mind. By 1871, Red Cloud — who had fought the United States to a stalemate from 1862-1864 — had decided on a different tact. Recognizing the futility of war with the American government, he sought compromise. Perhaps there was a way to take as much from the American government in the way of rations and still retain one’s independence. Red Cloud was wrong. Life on the reservation was a life dependent on bureaucrats and politicians to deliver blankets and beef. When bureaucrats were corrupt or inept (as they most often were) and when political considerations took precedent, the Sioux starved.
Sitting Bull’s struggle to resist the historical tide that was sweeping over the Lakota also ultimately ended in failure. In 1881, after a brief stint in Canada, he and his followers at long last surrendered, stumbling tired and hungry into Fort Buford. At bottom, however, the philosophical debate engaged by these two great chiefs was not about war versus peace, but independence versus dependence.
It is ironic that these two men would be absorbed in such a debate while enemies of the United States government. The same government that in its infancy gave voice to those very same notions of independence with lofty rhetoric such as that of Patrick Henry who said: “give me liberty or give me death!”
It is ironic as well that more than a century later we continue to struggle with the same questions. What is government’s proper role? Are men best left to fend for themselves? And what of those who through no fault of their own are not able to make winter’s rations? What of the disabled, the poor or elderly? How does a society best deal with its less fortunate members? And most importantly, how much of our liberty are we willing to give up in order for the government to take care of that which men have traditionally done for themselves?
The spirit of Henry’s words runs through the American character. We are a fiercely independent people. Yet from cradle to grave, we increasingly rely on the federal government to provide not only for the least of us, but for all of us.
So we struggle. Winters are cold, but entitlements cost. We can’t have high entitlements and low taxes. Many recognize the financial cost of bounties and donations, and don’t mind giving over a portion of their income to pay for them. What they do object to, however, is the waste and mismanagement that accompanies bureaucracy, and the political considerations that often sidetrack benefits.
But all costs are not financial. As Plutarch observed, each encroachment of the government into our personal lives results in the erosion of that liberty we hold so dear. Some will argue as Red Cloud did in 1871 that blankets and beef are worth the price. I tend to agree with Sitting Bull’s conclusion that if the cost of winter rations is our liberty, the price is too steep.