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We Need a Return to Principled Government

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.)