It’s widely recognized that our government is in dire shape. Our annual deficits are in the trillions of dollars. Unfunded entitlement programs run many times that. Lobbyists and earmarking rule Washington. Special interests, including public-sector unions, environmental groups, the AARP, and countless others, vie against one another for exorbitant privileges — all meted out at taxpayers’ expense.
Our most responsible mainstream news venues, like Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, often carry stories exposing the sobering facts. The analyses are penetrating, succinct, and eloquent. But the recommendations? Timid and trite. The best they can offer is to advise moderation: slow the growth of government here, cut back a program there, oppose a few details of the most onerous regulations, but basically resign oneself to the status quo.
It wasn’t always so. When faced with more difficult problems, our Founding Fathers imagined, created, and then fought for a radically new idea of government. Why were they able to do so, when our modern leaders and pundits can’t?
For a hint, contrast the approach of today’s politicians to that used in other fields. In physics and engineering, for instance, problems aren’t met by moderation, compromise, or resignation — they’re solved by reference to principles. Confronted with a new challenge, the first question engineers ask themselves is: “How do Newton’s laws of motion apply?” Similarly, biologists and free-market economists look respectively to the principles of evolution and of supply and demand to guide their thinking.
Yet an adherence to principles is what’s so conspicuously absent from today’s politics. Conversely, the Founders were paragons of principled action. Hence their historical success and our current failure.
The Founders’ deep conviction in their principles was borne of the process by which they arrived at them. Just as physicists and biologists derive their guiding principles from observation and theory, so did the Founders. They began with an exhaustive study of every major society in history. They looked at what worked and what didn’t, how men actually fared under numerous political systems. And their standard was the outcome of ordinary citizens — not kings or popes — because to them each individual counted. They also studied the philosophical and political theories of John Locke and others. Based on these works they came to regard each man as a moral end in himself who must exercise his reason to survive.
The lessons of history and philosophy proved that, to be successful, man must be left free to think, choose, and act for himself. The Founders captured this conclusion in a revolutionary new political principle: the protection of individual rights. In their formulation they were as careful as scientists. They correctly defined rights as protecting freedom of action, not guaranteeing success, results, or goods.
Moreover they understood rights to be universal, i.e., nothing can be a right for one person which entails the violation of another’s. (Though they accomplished so much else, tragically the Founders didn’t choose to abolish slavery. This shameful and glaring self-contradiction almost tore the country apart in the decades that followed.)
Armed with the principle of individual rights, the Founders proposed radically new solutions to their problems. Indeed, against all odds, they threw off the shackles of the world’s superpower and established a constitutional republic essentially from scratch. The explicit, overarching purpose of that government? “To secure the rights of each individual.” For much of its existence the nation worked to perfect this idea, abolishing the travesty of slavery, and eventually extending rights to all.
If there were ever any doubt that a consistent protection of individual rights is the proper principle to guide politics, it was laid to rest by America’s dynamic and unprecedented success. We all know of her unheralded prosperity and technological advances. But there’s perhaps an even more eloquent testimonial to the morality and practicality of her founding principle. Tens of millions of men, women, and children from around the world endured enormous hardships to make their way to her shores, solely for the prospect of living free — by right.
Unfortunately for them, and for us, the country slowly went off track. Both by a corruption of the principle of rights, and by a growing disregard for principles generally. Rights came to mean anything someone might need or wish for: we had “rights” to jobs, education, health care, etc. Similarly, principled action in politics gave way to seat-of-the-pants policy-making aimed at placating the loudest lobbyists.
As a result, rights were no longer inalienable. They were bartered and infringed at the government’s pleasure or the voters’ whims. The effect of each new pseudo “right” was to violate the legitimate rights of those forced to provide them. One restrictive regulation led to the next, and each government-extorted privilege created another class of special interests. Without a principle to clearly limit its role, the scope and size of government mushroomed. Hence our current situation.
Yet as bad as it is, we could quickly turn it around by injecting our fundamental principle back into the debate. For instance, we often hear the phrase “limited government” bandied about by the mainstream media. But without a standard to do the limiting, the phrase is empty. It’s time to point out that in its original and proper use, “limited government” meant limited to the protection of individual rights. Everything else was — and is — beyond the government’s scope.
Consider what this would mean to some of the problems mentioned earlier. Getting the government out of the economy, for instance, would obviate any lobbying, earmarking, or special interest warfare. Under a rights-respecting system, any individual or group who desires wealth would have to obtain it the old fashioned way — by earning it.
Similarly, most social programs would be (gradually) eliminated, since their existence violates the rights of those being forced to fund them. Instead, the minority of people in real need would have to rely on the abundant generosity of Americans to voluntarily assist them. (Historically this has worked well, from the 19th century where doctors routinely gave unpaid care, through to current times where private aid for hurricane and Tsunami victims comes more copiously — and reliably — than from bureaucratic government programs.) Of course, none of this will be easy or painless — but that’s only because we’ve veered so far from our founding principle.
Contrary to today’s pundits, we don’t have to resign ourselves to more of the same in politics. With the principle of individual rights to guide us, bold solutions to our problems are possible. Indeed, with it as their guide, the Founders overcame enormous obstacles to create the greatest nation in history. We can too. All it takes is to recommit to the principle.