Exploring America's Founding Principles: The Need Has Never Been Greater

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by Steven Yates

On September 16 our city newspaper published a special section entitled "America: What We Value As a Nation." That such sections are being published, probably in many newspapers across the land, should come as no surprise. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have left in their wake a sense of instability. Efforts are underway to assuage this instability by a variety of means, some good, some not so good. Journalists making efforts at articulating American values amount to one such effort, one worth evaluating.

The values identified in our section were four: generosity, service, courage, resilience.

There is abundant evidence that these are indeed values held by many if not most Americans. Generosity? Consider the lines of people outside Red Cross facilities, which here stretched half a city block. When they heard about the attacks in New York City and Washington, there were more people willing to donate blood than there were Red Cross volunteers capable of accommodating them. Americans are among the most generous people in the world. Service? Business enterprises flourish because they service markets. While profit may be the motive, the service must be a genuine one. Many other enterprises (e.g., think tanks, research institutes) provide services without earning a profit. Sometimes profit isn't the point. Sometimes we take an action not to gain monetarily but because it is the right thing to do. Writing columns for the Internet can be regarded as a service in this sense. So can volunteering at a local Red Cross facility, for those so inclined. Courage? Consider the handful of passengers who fought to retake control of Flight 93. They knew they would probably not get out alive and that their deed might never be known, but they fought back anyway, realizing the importance of preventing that plane from reaching its destination, most likely the White House. Todd Beamer has rightly been dubbed a hero. No doubt, though, there are other Americans who would have done the same thing. A writer from whom I receive frequent emails recently spoke of courage "not [as] the absence of fear [but] the decision that something is more important than the fear." Resilence? Another American trait, which applies particularly to the U.S. economy. Presently the economy is taking a beating. It will come back. The "economy" is just the aggregate actions of millions of people: producing, selling, buying, saving, investing, and so on. Whatever else occurs, and although it may take some time, the economy will rebound from the events of September 11 – if, of course, the federal government will allow it.

This list is not wrong, therefore, but it is incomplete. It suggests that certain values are desirable, but without going to the core issue: what makes them right. The need for a complete understanding of what once made America a special place has never been greater. President Bush spoke last Thursday about our being "called to defend freedom." What does this mean? Is this more than political jingoism? Without a clear conception of what we are defending, we might find ourselves doing quite the opposite. Therefore I will endeavor to complete the list here. Hopefully it will place the above values into a larger context. My list includes: individual liberty, personal responsibility, Constitutionally limited government and the rule of law. In large measure, of course, America has drifted from each. This spells trouble, because taken together these are the principles of a free society. Since they haven't been taught in the government schools in quite a while now, few Americans – even those who think of themselves as "conservative" – can articulate them very well. But if we cannot reassess where the country stands in light of its founding principles, then we are in more danger than ever of losing them altogether. And then the terrorists will have won. For example, if law-abiding American citizens find themselves hysterically embracing national ID cards, wiretapping, massive searches of private property by federal agents and so on, all in the name of feeling secure, then the terrorists will have destroyed that which made America great – namely, freedom!

So let us begin anew. Individual liberty is the state of affairs, within important limits, in which law-abiding citizens can live according to their own choices rather than those of someone else. If you want to obtain an education, you can. There are no significant restrictions on what you can read, or where you may travel. If you want to start a business, no one will stop you. Your business may make you rich, and no one will plunder your wealth or tell you how you must spend it. If you wish to own a gun, that is your prerogative. In a free society, you may worship God as you see fit, or not worship anything at all. This is quite unlike most of the rest of the world, and increasingly unlike the America we live in today.

Of course, individual liberty does not mean the freedom to do anything one pleases. Freedom is not anarchy. Genuine freedom recognizes bounds placed on human conduct by common morality. Moral citizens have learned to restrict their own basic impulses in specific ways. It would be fair to say that genuine freedom involves a kind of paradox (the "paradox of liberty," I sometimes call it): freedom flourishes when citizens embrace restrictions on their conduct imposed from within, to avoid their being imposed from without. The basic moral limit to individual liberty is the familiar barring of the initiation of force against others. Using force automatically means taking others' liberties away. It is also illegitimate to defraud others, or cheat them. Sometimes all this is cashed out in the language of rights: individuals have a right to live in accordance with their own choices so long as they do not violate or forcibly interfere with others' right to do the same. This all brings us to the second.

Personal responsibility. At base, individual liberty works under the assumption that individuals take care of themselves. The world does not take care of the individual. The ideal is that individuals take care of themselves by taking necessary actions – getting an education and then either working in an occupation for which they were educated or starting a business and supplying a market with some good. This calls for individuals to develop a sense of personal responsibility.

Of course, the ideal is not always realized and there are some obvious exceptions to it: we do not come into the world as fully formed, thinking, acting adults but as helpless babies. It is easy to cash out individualism in an excessive, atomistic fashion. We are all individuals, and all our actions are individual actions, but we are not atoms; as individuals we are members of families, formal organizations such as businesses and churches, and more loosely structured ones such as communities. In a free society there is no supervening entity (a central government, for example) whose purpose is to take care of the individual, whether to provide safety nets, guarantee good health, or whatever. But sophisticated, as opposed to atomistic, individualism embraces the fact that we are members of larger systems such as families, businesses, churches, and communities. Individuals, in their efforts to be independent, sometimes suffer setbacks, and sometimes these setbacks are personally devastating. At these times, the resources of one's family members can prove invaluable. Within other organizations are other resources through which people can help each other, creating local "safety nets" for one another. The important point to note is at this local, community level, such actions between people who have sometimes known each other all their lives are voluntary and not forced. The benevolence between people that emerges, especially in times of crisis, is sincere, not artificial. Central government, with its army of bureaucrats coming into communities from the outside, cannot achieve the level of trust and benevolence that exists among members of a community who grew up as neighbors, played on the same sports teams, graduated from the same high schools, and so on. Moreover, bureaucracy causes harm in at least two other ways. The taxation needed to support the bureaucrats drains resources from where they may be employed more effectively, and the presence of bureaucrats may lead people who haven't seen anything different to take for granted that providing "safety nets" is a job only bureaucrats can perform. This brings us to the third.

Constitutionally limited government. Government, as every libertarian knows, is the one institution in society with a legal monopoly on the use of force. This makes it the most dangerous institution in any society, and the one most important to limit. The Framers knew this, and while they may have wanted a government more centralized than the one defined by the Articles of Confederation, all understood well the importance of setting limits. So in what became known as the Constitutional Convention of 1787, they spelled out those limits, dividing the intended federal government into its familiar three branches, designating specific powers to each and building checks on the power of each into the others. Example: the President (executive branch) is designated Commander-in-Chief, but under Constitutionally correct government, only Congress (legislative branch) has the power to declare war.

Limitations on government are, however, fragile and must be preserved by vigilance, as Thomas Jefferson observed ("vigilance," he said, "is the price of liberty."). This is, in a nutshell, the central problem of political philosophy: not how to build the ideal society but how to control power. A Constitution is merely a written document; it won't protect itself. The need for vigilance is one of our responsibilities, and arguably we have fallen down badly in this area. In recent years, "undeclared wars" have allowed two generations of presidents to thwart the check on the power of the executive branch. The Clinton Regime's end runs around Congress were blatant. If Clinton wanted to bomb someone, he did. This, of course, barely scratches the surface. To see how far we have drifted from Constitutionally limited government, we have only to look at the Constitution and realize that there is nothing in it about education, for example. Nor will one find anything allowing for taxation on one's personal income or for social security or for affirmative action or many other things now taken for granted.

The Constitution, moreover, makes no provisions for a federal government large enough and powerful enough to police the rest of the world, whether to impose "democracy" on peoples who don't want it or for any other purpose. It does make provisions intended to ensure that the checks on government power have teeth in them. These were insisted upon by the critics of the original Constitution – the so-called Antifederalists. We owe them the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution. The First Amendment grants citizens the authority to criticize official government policy without being arrested and thrown in jail; the Second, arguably, was intended as a separate check on government power by means of an armed adult citizenry (the original meaning of militia). Other amendments place additional limits on the power of government; the Ninth and Tenth, finally, underscore the rest of the document by designating that in a Constitutional republic the states are sovereign. The federal government is their servant, not their master. Moreover, the enumeration of certain rights in the Constitution and Bill of Rights was not to be taken as exhaustive of all rights, the clear implication being that rights antecede legal authority. Here we arrive, again, at a moral and metaphysical / theological basis for Constitutionally limited government. Most of the Framers, of course, believed that rights as moral claims with teeth in them can come only from God, the Author and Final Arbiter of justice in the universe.

The rule of law. The Constitution was intended to be the supreme law of the land. While cashing out what this meant took some doing, the idea was to build up – for the first time – a society whose government answered to the authority of its own founding documents as understood above. There were, of course, antecedents such as the Magna Carta. That document made specific claims on the king, John, but didn't provide a larger philosophical framework. By and large, in the past the king was the law and could do as he pleased. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution set out to change that.

The struggle toward controlling power with something other than a greater power was long, hard, and is far from over. There is, I am firmly convinced, a minority in any population that is fascinated by power and understands people and relationships only in its terms. Many members of this minority in our population end up in politics where they can thwart the intentions of the Framers. They have had plenty of help from the academic and educational worlds, where ideologies emphasizing power have flourished. For a few years I debated the topic of power and restraints on power (mostly through the mail and eventually email) with a professor of public administration at a major northeastern university. My position: a government worthy of loyalty and support adheres to the rules it sets for itself, and does not try to micromanage everything in sight. His position: all truth and morality is determined by authority or power, so that power gets the last word in any event. He believed we ought to abandon the Constitution. His position held that science alone, with its special method, would get us past the temptations of power. As to how and why we could expect this from an institution no less a product of human beings than any other institution, he had no answer.

Over the past 20 years, of course, such "deconstructions" of principles have become fashionable. Academic deconstructionism serves up a cynical view of society. This is perhaps because its purveyors know that their often-frivolous linguistic games would not survive without the huge, government-supported university systems and federal grants that nurture bizarre beliefs and hatch all manner of agendas that don't work.

I propose that we scrap it all and return to the principles outlined above. Naturally, these principles deviate from what the current Republican administration and its supporters are proposing. George W. Bush Jr.'s words and actions so far since September 11 offer a mixed bag. On the one hand, he has shown admirable restraint. Surely, Al what's-his-name (Bill Clinton's hand-picked successor) would have leveled Kabul by now, without having gotten a single terrorist. On the other, however, Bush Jr. has shown no tendency to rethink American foreign policy. Rethinking our foreign policy might include rethinking our government's unconditional support for Israel, its continued pointless embargo against Iraq which has killed thousands of children without harming Saddam Hussein in the slightest, or our society's more general tendency to import secular, materialist values into deeply traditional societies.

At present, this country is moving rapidly into Crisis mode. As I argued in a previous article, something like this happens every 70 or so years. Every Crisis by nature involves a kind of destabilizing. People who want power thrive in that kind of environment. Bush Jr. and his cohorts have assembled a large if somewhat fragile coalition of supporters representing a formidable force that includes other Islamic countries. It is at least possible that this coalition will eventually smoke out Osama bin Laden, shut down his training camps and disperse his underground army.

But then what? Will Bush's worldwide alliance then become a major problem in its own right? Exactly when will we know we have dealt effectively with bin Laden and his followers (assuming that is possible)? And at what point will we be willing to back off? Just how far are we willing to go on the domestic front in the name of "security"? Do the events of this past month have anything to do with what George Bush Sr. called the New World Order?

The importance of articulating this country's founding principles has never been greater. This is surely more urgent than flying American flags from every car, over every business, and on everyone's lapel. These kinds of security blankets will not protect our freedoms. Understanding our founding principles places into a larger context the four values we began with: generosity, service, courage, resilience. Our founding principles made this the most prosperous country in history. You can be generous with others once you've produced more than you need; free markets make this possible. You can serve others best when you are free; anything else is slavery. You can be your most courageous when you have principles worth fighting for, including saving lives. And you have a reason to be resilient when you know that truth and right are on your side, because the principles that originally built America are true and right. Finally, you have an incentive to engage in the real war right here at home, the struggle to return America to its founding principles.

There is a desperate need to get our house in order while there is still time. We should recall the warnings issued by our first president, George Washington, against "foreign entanglements." If we can raise up a new commitment to the principles this country was founded on here at home, coupled with a willingness to mind our own business and stop telling the rest of the world how to live, this might make us slightly less of a threat overseas, somewhat less hated, and considerably less tempting of a target.

Steven Yates [send him mail] has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (ICS Press, 1994). He is a professional writer at work on a number of projects including a work of political philosophy, The Paradox of Liberty. He also writes for the Edgefield Journal, and is available for lectures. He has started writing a novel and also set up a small freelance writing business, Millennium 3 Communications, in the hope that one or the other will eventually lead to an escape from underemployment. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina.

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