By Bradley Harrington
“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.” — James Madison, “The Federalist No. 51,” 1788 —
As is stated in the “Declaration of Independence,” “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.”
The Declaration was primarily the intellectual product of the Age of Enlightenment in general, but it was made possible by the work of two Enlightenment philosophers in particular:
■ John Locke, who stated that government’s moral purpose was to protect “life, liberty and property”; that a moral government had to operate under the consent of its citizens, or else “forfeit the power the people had put into their hands”; and that in the absence of such consent those citizens had the right to get rid of it (“it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty”). (“Two Treatises of Government,” 1689);
■ Baron de Montesquieu, who defined and systematized the “separation of powers” (“when the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty”), and who also devised other “checks and balances” to thwart liberty’s usurpation (“to prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power”). (“The Spirit of the Laws,” 1750).
We take such mechanisms of limited government for granted these days, but do we really understand what human societies were like prior to the American Revolution’s introduction of these ideas?
The principles of the Rights of Man stood in stark contrast to the tyrannies and civil wars of monarchical Europe, the theocracies of the Middle East and the caste systems of India. In all of those such countries, citizens were little more than tools to be used, plundered and exploited by their respective states.
In the United States, however, you were free to be an end unto yourself; where the “good” you might or might not be doing for others did not serve as a justification for your continued existence; and where you were left alone by government to go as far as your mind, wits and ability could take you. The fledgling United States blew the reign of the thug and the king sky-high. For the first time in history, a nation proclaimed to the world: “We don’t need any ‘rulers’!”
This is the secret to grasping “American Exceptionalism” — realizing that it was an idea, the idea of liberty, that both animated and permeated itself throughout our entire society and culture. Government was widely seen as a property-protecting mechanism and not much else, and Americans took it as an affront to their freedoms to be told what they “had” to or “couldn’t” do.
Which raises the question: Just what IS it, exactly, that government should be doing? From both a moral and a political perspective?
The Founders’ answers to those questions was ultimately ratified as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Before examining those documents in the light of their success or failure at keeping limited government in check, however, don’t we need to develop our standards first?
If, ethically, government’s role is protecting our individual rights, how is it to do so? Politically, what agencies are required to achieve that end?
Well, we need police to protect us from criminals; the armed forces to protect us from foreign aggression; and a court system to adjudicate justice by protecting contracts, prosecuting aggressions, etc.
And isn’t that really about it? When it comes strictly to life-and-property protection, what else merits inclusion on this list?
Fire protection, some would argue — and roads and other infrastructure as well. While it is true that these are essential services, however, it is by no means essential that they be provided by government. Communities (such as Sandy Springs, Georgia) that now employ non-coercive models for providing such services have had great success.
And all the rest of it? What America has today is a massively-over-grown leviathan, a government full of gangsters run amok, functioning not only way outside of their proper, moral, “Declarational” bounds but also of their legal, political, Constitutional bounds as well. The “multitude of new offices” and “swarms of officers” are back like never before.
Which generates two more questions:
(1) If the Constitution has failed to achieve the purpose of permanently limiting government — and it has — then shouldn’t we be finding out why? Shouldn’t we be analyzing the factors that contributed to that erosion?
(2) And, once that information has been gained, aren’t we then obligated to apply that new knowledge and solve the original problem?
Bradley Harrington is a computer technician and a writer who lives in Cheyenne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
NOTE: This column was originally published in the “Wyoming Tribune Eagle” on February 5, 2017. Here is this column’s original downloadable PDF file.