By Bruce Thornton
The Fourth of July is not just another day off from work. Nor is it just the celebration of our country’s birth, the bold act of the colonists in challenging the world’s greatest power and creating a government based on freedom and self-rule. On this day 241 years ago the delegates to the Second Continental Congress adopted a document that laid the foundations of the American political order. Sadly, the meaning of the Declaration of Independence has been lost, and the order it created eroded by progressivism.
One of the greatest statements of political philosophy occurs in the preamble to the Declaration:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ––That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .
Government is a creation of the sovereign people who must consent to its forms and functions. It is thus accountable to the people, and exists primarily to protect their rights, especially freedom, that precede government. These rights are the “unalienable” foundations of our human nature, and come from a “Creator” and the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” They are not gifts of the powerful or any institutions that an elite of wealth or birth create to serve their interests. They cannot justly be taken away by any earthly power, but they can be limited and destroyed by tyranny.
Central to these rights is freedom, which implies self-rule as well as the scope to pursue “happiness,” the actions and behaviors, the way of living that achieves a good and virtuous life suitable for a human being possessing reason and free will. To secure the freedom of the individual requires political liberty expressed through a government of laws and institutions that reflect the collective consent of the people, and whose agents are chosen by the citizens or their representatives, and thus are accountable to the people.
A little more than a decade later the Constitution formalized the structures of governing that would protect this ideal. Recognizing that human nature is flawed and subject to “passions and interests,” and fearful of power’s “encroaching nature,” the framers separated, checked, and balanced power through federalism and mixed government. James Madison in Federalist 51 famously expressed the assumptions lying behind a form of government designed for the “preservation of liberty”:
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
Given a fallen human nature, power must never be allowed to be concentrated into an elite of any sort, for neither birth, wealth, nor wisdom can guard against the destructive excesses of power. Defend the people’s ordered liberty, equality of opportunity, and equality under the law, and the freedom of all will be protected.
This is the American creed, the set of ideas assent to which makes one an American––not blood, or soil, or any mystic “identity” exclusive of others and claiming a natural superiority over them.
The bulk of the Declaration, however, is a catalogue of the despotic acts of George III, whose “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States,” justified the rebellion against Britain. The word “tyranny” here is not used casually: it is a technical term from political philosophy going back to its beginnings in ancient Athens. Tyranny is the opposite of liberty and equality, for it makes power the instrument of the self-aggrandizement of the few at the expense of the many. As Aristotle wrote, tyranny is “arbitrary power . . . which is responsible to no one, and governs all alike, whether equals or betters, with a view to its own advantage, not to that of its subjects, and therefore against their will. No freeman willingly endures such a government.” A tyranny is diametrically opposed to the ideas set out in the preamble to the Declaration.
At the end of the 19th century, progressivism began to undermine and dismantle the American creed, and to create a government in many ways similar to “absolute tyranny.” The advances of science and technology deluded many into believing that human nature and behavior could be understood and manipulated and improved with the same success natural science enjoyed. The old American creed based on a permanently flawed human nature and the need to disperse and balance power had to be discarded. As Woodrow Wilson said, the Constitution had to be interpreted “according to the Darwinian principle,” with a centralized government of technocrats who could shape or “nudge,” as our progressives today put it, human nature into greater “fitness” for happiness in a new world of science and technology. Now power is to be concentrated into an elite of superior knowledge charged with shaping people’s lives in order to “improve” them, and empowered to confiscate and redistribute wealth in order to finance this social engineering.
Also contrary to the Declaration is the progressive view of rights. Now rights come not from “Nature and Nature’s God,” their origins and nature transcendent. Now rights are derived from the will of flawed men, defined according to their limited and contingent vision of happiness and the good. Just as they disparage the Constitution, progressive thinkers sneer at the notion of natural rights “beyond the reach, not only of the majority but of the state itself,” as progressive historian Charles Beard wrote in 1912, who reduced natural rights to an “obsolete and indefensible” notion. Putting rights into the hands of powerful men meant that they could be multiplied and expanded by political power, as Franklin Roosevelt did in his 1944 inaugural address, in which he called for a Second Bill of Rights including everything from a “useful and remunerative job” to “adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.” But this turns rights into the gifts of power wielded by flawed and limited human beings, and as such the foundations of our rights are temporal and always up for debate and redefinition, as we have seen in communist countries or in Islamic sharia law.
Finally, the progressives rejected the idea of the transcendent, divine authority that defined humans by their innate freedom and equality. Hence the relentless efforts to drive religion from the public square and reduce it to a lifestyle choice and expression of private identity, no different from one’s taste in food, clothes, or entertainment. In this way the moral order sanctioned by “Nature’s God” and the “Supreme Judge of the world,” as the Declaration describes the divine order, which enforced limits on license and self-indulgence, can be marginalized and bereft of its power to sanction destructive behavior. This leaves the state––a collection of flawed, corruptible human beings limited by their own “passions and interests” –– as the only authority for regulating people’s lives.
The result is to set all rights adrift, vulnerable to chance and change. The author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson was a deist, but even he recognized the necessity of religious belief for the American order, and the dangers of ignoring its transcendent foundations: “God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.”
Today we live in a political order that the progressives have altered and distanced from its philosophical roots in the Declaration of Independence. Political power is now concentrated in the federal government and its 2.6 million mostly anonymous, unelected unaccountable workers who staff over 430 agencies and departments, which extend their coercive and regulatory power into every aspect of our lives. Every day we witness their tyrannical “repeated injuries and usurpations” at the expense of our freedom and autonomy, and the Constitutional balance of powers. The government confiscates wealth and redistributes it to political clients, just like the tyrants of old, in order to make people “accustomed to feed at the expense of others” and to make “their prospects of winning a livelihood depend upon the property of their neighbors,” as Polybius described the modus operandi of the ancient tyrant. Political freedom is degraded into license, the power to do what we want rather than to live as people deserving of freedom. Today we are subjects of Tocqueville’s “soft despotism,” which seeks “to keep [the people] in perpetual childhood,” and is “well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing.”
Donald Trump has pruned back federal power to some degree, and praises patriotism and faith. But weaning the citizens from their dependence on entitlements––the engine of soft despotism–– is a monumental task that so far he has shown little interest in attempting. The difficulties the Republicans are currently facing just in reducing the growth in Medicaid spending that accelerated under Obamacare illustrate the scope of the problem. Given our $20 trillion in debt and trillions more in unfunded liabilities, our children and grandchildren are facing a fiscal Armageddon, and when it comes freedom and equality may be its first victims.
So today, amidst the barbecues and fireworks and the paeans to patriotism, we should take time to contemplate how far we have drifted from the ideals for which our ancestors fought and died.