Americaís Founding Principles:
The Need Has Never Been Greater
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
values identified in our section were four: generosity, service,
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 isnít 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.
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 havenít 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!
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.
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 othersí 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 othersí right to do the same. This all brings us
to the second.
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.
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 oneís 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 havenít seen anything different to take for
granted that providing "safety nets" is a job only bureaucrats
can perform. This brings us to the third.
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.
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 wonít 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
Regimeís 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 oneís personal income or for social
security or for affirmative action or many other things now taken
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 donít 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.
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 didnít
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.
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.
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 donít work.
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.ís words and actions so far since September 11 offer
a mixed bag. On the one hand, he has shown admirable restraint.
Surely, Al whatís-his-name (Bill Clintonís 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 governmentís 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 societyís more general tendency to import secular,
materialist values into deeply traditional societies.
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
then what? Will Bushís 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?
importance of articulating this countryís founding principles has
never been greater. This is surely more urgent than flying American
flags from every car, over every business, and on everyoneís 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 youíve 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
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.
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
© 2001 LewRockwell.com