The Irony of the Liberty Bill

H.R. 2854, a proposed bill making its way through committees, would require the Treasury Secretary to give the greenback a makeover. The bill aims to replace the Great Seal of the United States (which Franklin Delano Roosevelt incorporated in 1935) on the reverse of the dollar with excerpts from the U.S. Constitution including the preamble, a list of Articles, and a list of Amendments in the founding document. The bill, cited as the “Liberty Bill Act,” states that Congress believes that “many Americans are unaware of the provisions of the Constitution of the United States” and that the proposed new Federal Reserve notes would “remind the American people of the historical importance of the Constitution and its impact on their lives” and “remind Americans of the blessings of liberty. . .[and] of the framework of the United States government.”

Granted, I don’t consider myself an average citizen, but I personally carry a copy of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights with me to remind myself of the limits our forefathers placed on governmental power — limits which have secured to our nation the trappings of liberty and prosperity throughout the years. Undoubtedly it would be a good thing to see more people knowledgeable and well-versed in the basic principles of the founding documents of our country. There is a great and weighty irony, however, in printing portions of this document on Federal Reserve Notes, an institution which, according to some experts, is nowhere to be found in the Constitution.

I am reminded of George Orwell’s Animal Farm when I hear of proposed bills such as this one. You’ll perhaps remember the Seven Commandments which were written on the barn wall by Napoleon and Co. “in great white letters that could be read thirty yards away,” which constituted “an unalterable law by which all the animals on Animal Farm must live for ever after”:

1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.

2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.

3. No animal shall wear clothes.

4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.

5. No animal shall drink alcohol.

6. No animal shall kill any other animal.

7. All animals are equal.

As anyone who has read the story knows, in the following pages the pigs go on to pervert, circumscribe, and later rescind every Commandment save one in the aforementioned list, concluding infamously and chillingly with the line “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Perhaps what is most troubling about this downward spiral, however, are the other animals’ reactions toward the pigs’ alterations, or rather their lackadaisical compliance to the pigs’ demands. Time and time again we are told that “somehow or another” the animals had forgotten that the pigs’ alterations to the Commandments had been there “all along,” or that it “did not seem strange” as the treacherous pigs increasingly take on the physical and amoral qualities of their former human masters.

Public display of the Commandments did nothing to halt or slow their eventual corruption. In fact, by turning them into a mantra (the sheep were especially fond of commandments one and two, but in the end fell to the pigs’ twisted influence all the same), Napoleon and Squealer were able to warp their meaning to the point at which the Commandments were used against the impressionable animals. Putting the Commandments on stage served as an accelerant to this end; the crafty swine knew that under constant public scrutiny what was once absolute would become slippery, then give way altogether and fall into a morass of meaningless impotence. Orwell himself cautioned in Politics and the English Language that “. . .if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Too often in politics the meaning of words become liquid campaign slogans, transformed by gilded tongues into passionate promises and adamant assertions, or they are primed and charged with so many attached packets of meaning that the original meaning of the word stands as a hollow husk of what it once signified. By this process words become labels, and labels in turn become a little less than zeitgeist on the backs of transfixed ideologues.

As Friedrich Hayek put it in The Road to Serfdom:

The most effective way of making people accept the validity of the values they are to serve is to persuade them that they are really the same as those which they. . .have always held, but which were not properly understood or recognized before. And the most efficient technique to this end is to use the old words but change their meaning. Few traits of totalitarian regimes are at the same time so confusing to the superficial observer and yet so characteristic of the whole intellectual climate as the complete perversion of language, the change of meaning of the words by which the ideals of the new regimes are expressed.

Indeed, we must proceed with caution on this ground, or not at all. Rubber-stamping our money with the likeness of our most cherished pact between citizenry and government may make one set of papers more important, but it could render another set impotent as well.

On the other hoof, Congress has a point, I think, in stating that many Americans are unaware of the meaning and importance of the Constitution. I’m just not sure that the back of an inflated, central-bank issued fiat currency is the appropriate medium for learning about limited government.

What do you think? Would this bill profane one of the greatest foundations of our liberty by opening it up to the liquefying subversion of linguistic politics? Or will it actually serve to educate and remind people of the limits of government at a time when limited government is so badly needed?