In medieval times, “villeins” were a class of serfs who held the legal status of freemen in their dealings with all people except their lord (according to the American Heritage Dictionary). How close are we to becoming “villein citizens”? When faced with the capricious nature of the state, we fall back on what seems to be our freedom, yet increasingly our liberty is defined not by the will of the people but by government bureaucrats and elected officials. In our relations with our fellow citizens, and with private institutions, we continue to believe we are free, accorded rights by law and possessing a centuries-old apparatus based on custom to protect those rights, and act as such.
Yet in relations with the federal government, we are increasingly seen and treated as serfs, with no protections save what the lord at the time deigns to give us. The courts have long acted as a type of lord, arbitrarily decreeing what our freedoms should be; now they are joined by an activist president and his minions. The apparatus of the state towers over the representatives of the people, half of whom currently support the ever-encompassing grasp of government, the other half being too fractured and outmaneuvered to champion the rights of individuals (and usually reversed when a president of a different party is in power). Rather than legally passed legislation, it is executive order that more and more determines the nature of the interaction between villein citizens and the government. Let us be clear (to use a phrase currently in vogue), when the state gets to determine what counts as a religious organization, and when it determines what that organization must do, then we are not free men, but serfs to an increasingly confident master. That is the nub of the HHS-mandate ruling.
"We are increasingly seen and treated as serfs, with no protections save what the lord at the time deigns to give us."
We may still feel the spaces of our freedom, our ability to act as equals with our neighbors and in our communities. We may not sense the shadow looming over us, but it is real, and it is probing and sniffing at our weakening defenses. Each step in the forfeiture of our freedoms may seem small, but one day we will awaken to a fundamentally changed world, one in which we take for granted the limitations placed on us by the state, in which the “greater good” is imposed without hindrance on the freedom of the individual.
In 2015 the Anglosphere will observe the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. It was a first small step on the long, contested way to the beliefs that ultimately informed our own Declaration and Constitution.
Perhaps we will be forced by then to go back to basics and demand a new Magna Carta. Otherwise, we should accept our status as villein citizens.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.