America is not a new idea. It is the culmination of a spirit that started in 1215, eight hundred years ago (give or take a few months) with the Magna Carta in England. This vision is not a utopian dream, rather it is a realization of what we can achieve with people as we actually are, capable of great achievements while only a few steps away from unspeakable savagery. It took 575 years (give or take a few months) to bring this vision to a hard reality in the form of the Constitution of the United States. (Waiting six centuries for an idea to become reality is patience beyond my imagination. There is an ever-so-patient tree on the Navajo Loop at Bryce Canyon that grew for about seven centuries before it ever saw the sun.)
The vision is that we can build a republic based on simple values and we have to realize these values must remain inviolate and the rights must remain inalienable for it to continue to serve its citizens. Human life, liberty, livelihood, property, and contract are the key rights. Let's look at them for few paragraphs.
"Human Life" isn't too hard. We have pretty-well-defined criteria for when it's okay to kill somebody else. Defining our physical persons from imminent danger or protecting our domiciles from invasion are deemed acceptable circumstances for killing an aggressor. Otherwise, "thou shalt not kill" is pretty much the law we have. There are breaches, to be sure, and questions of when law enforcement can stretch those limits, but, in my anything-but-humble opinion, the fundamental problems we're having in our American society are not stemming from abuse of the right to life.
"Liberty" is a too-often-abused word. We talk about rights to speech, religion, travel, press, and privacy with the expectation that these should be protected and provided by our society and our government. I'm comfortable with the former on both, that we should aggressively protect rights for each other. If people wants to say something or to go somewhere, then I'm all in favor of others respecting their choices. That doesn't absolve people from facing the consequences of those choices, Oliver Wendell Holmes's famous example of shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater being my favorite example. The first amendment of our Constitution doesn't say you can say anything you want, only that no law may prohibit your exercise of free speech. Slander, libel, or criminal consequences are still your responsibility when you use your rights. Our society should be biased in favor of freedom of choice, and that same society should feel comfortable with people facing the consequences of their choices.
That same liberty and choice applies to sexuality and drugs and education and career. I may not like your choices, but they're your choices and, so long as they don't intrude on me, it's not my business to intrude forcefully. (I'm still going to try to persuade my friends to make wiser choices.)
I prefer "liberty" to "freedom" or being "free." Too many people today echo Abbie Hoffman's line, "Free means you don't pay." American "freedom" isn't about how much you can get "for free," but rather how free we are to pursue our own visions.
"Livelihood" is the realization of the "pursuit of happiness." Calvin Coolidge said the business of American is business and I whole-heartedly agree. We should feel comfortable with people making a living, even doing things we don't particularly like. We also should be respectful of those earning their keep. "If you don't ship, you're overhead," one friend said to me. There was a line in the movie "Risky Business," "In a sluggish economy, never ever fuck with another man's livelihood." As an American, I'm intensely proud of my opportunity to sign the front of a dozen paycheques. (It's direct deposit these days, so signing the front of payroll cheques every two weeks is metaphorical rather than physical.)
Taxing that livelihood is theft, plain and simple. America accepts a breach of morality for a few specific services such as national defense and federal courts with the understanding that we all contribute equally. Asked how much of the national tax burden should be paid by the wealthiest five percent, an American answers "five percent" without hesitation. Economic success or failure should not be factor in tax paid, not a century ago and not today.
It's time to respect people who work, and people who produce. We sang songs venerating those who worked hard on railroads, in coal mines, pulling barges, driving eighteen-wheel trucks, and making our economy flourish in other ways. Labor unions gave workers a chance to present a unified and qualified work force to employers and there's no reason they can't do so again.
"Property" is the fourth pillar of American values. Not only what we earn but what we have should be sacred. The notion that we can take what we want from those we don't like is obscene, more obscene when the theft is taxation, and every so much more so when that obscenity is veiled by self-righteous sanctimony about generosity and helping the poor. We have to remove the notion that theft in a good cause is okay, we have to remove the naked jealousy and bare envy of the Occupy movement whose adversaries were simply and purely those who have been successful.
"Contract" is the final step, as in Ayn Rand's catch phrase "the sanctity of contract." If you give your word, then you keep your word, and that value should permeate our dealings with each other. Not every promise can be kept, there are "extenuating circumstances," as the lawyers say, but we expect "good faith effort" to comply with our word and good compensation from those who fail. It's part of the deal.
Having a clear understanding of what is expected often isn't easy, but deliberately misleading people clearly isn't right. Those of us who travel have oodles of stories in foreign countries where services were offered and reneged. My last two trips had sad stories of changing the rules, where an airline in Australia cost me AU $1100 (US $940) and a hotel in London cost me GBP £180 (US $380). My right-wing, US-conservative reaction was not just that I had been robbed but that this was gosh-darned un-American. A contract was made, terms were agreed to, nothing unexpected happened, and they didn't live up to their part. Another example that happened to somebody else is seeing a bowl of nuts at the restaurant table in Rome, sampling those nuts, and finding out that those nuts are quite expensive if one eats them. In Mexico we were offered an open bar from six to seven and a cash bar afterward. They kept us outside for a long time, they let us in at quarter to seven, took our beverage orders, and delivered our drinks at 7:02 with a bill. Sure, this crap happens stateside, maybe more recently than in years past, and we feel, and we should feel, it is smarmy and slimy and sleezy and wrong.
What does life under these values offer? (As much as libertarians preach the "normative" case of doing the right thing for its own sake, I justify a set of values by what it produces.)
First and foremost, these American values produce a fabulously wealthy society at all income levels. Before progressive taxation and progessive regulation America had the richest rich people in the world, the richest poor people in the world, and a rapidly emerging middle class. Circa 1900 America had a flow of eager immigrants. There were no welfare payouts, no federal guarantees, no benefits, just more jobs than you could shake a stick at. The best defense against low wages is more jobs so people have the choice not to work for next to nothing. Shitty jobs like the fast-food industry and Walmart are starter, entry jobs and people should have someplace else to go rather than having to work at those jobs forever listening to people campaigning for minimum wages that would make them unable to work at all.
How much better off would a free economy be? Well, the Carter administration took about one-third of the U.S. economy just by itself and the past eight years under the same political party have taken a similar-sized bite in American productivity. (A favorable balance of trade of Chinese imports has softened the blow in this century, but it will be felt, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of our lives.) If we believe, as I do, there was decay under both major parties, then we have to figure we've lost a factor of two, three, or more, at every level of the income ladder.
Look at it this way. Our technology has grown enormously and yet we have had less in the United States each year since about 1966. Think how much the regulatory environment of 1913 would produce today. The grumbling about anti-trust and abuse of labor wouldn't be issues in the Information Age of the Internet.
Look at it another way. Almost all subsidy programs pay people to be poor and penniless. Those who save for college don't get grants for their kids' tuition. Those who earn their incomes don't qualify for relief programs. Those who maintain two-parent families don't qualify for broken-home subsidies. We don't hear much lately about the "American dream" which is the mainstay of a proud, productive economy here.
What about helping the poor? What about schools? What about roads? These are problems that were taken care of in America before big government. The primary effect of government redistribution is to make people feel they're already being generous in taxing others, so they don't have to give of themselves. Maybe that's why conservatives who don't earn as much as liberals give so much more to charity. We recognize if we want the world to become a better place, then we're the ones who can make it happen.
America is also about choice. Some like their vacations on the beach, some like the mountains, and some like to spend their vacations at home. Some even like to tell jokes that other people don't like, part of the price of liberty.
I know it will shock people to find out that some people don't like some other people, perhaps based on race, religion, or sex. As an American, I'm comfortable that I might not be welcome in some clubs. Unlike Groucho Marx, I'm also comfortable that I'm not going to join those clubs. There might be clubs where people smoke cigarettes just as there are still airlines that serve peanuts when the majors have switched to pretzels and other snacks. (Somebody might be allergic.)
America isn't going to have laws against gay marriage or non-destructive drugs or even abortion. (Even the Bible is pro-choice on the abortion issue.) America also wouldn't dream of forcing any institution to support gay marriage or drugs, either. No church would be compelled to offer same-sex weddings and no taxpayer would be hit for subsidies for abortions or preventing people from using drugs.
Some have associated the American ethic with Christianity and this is wrong. One I deeply respect once opined, "Religion is the right profile of the monster whose left side is politics." The religious-right movement that put "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" in place of "E Pluribus Unum" as our motto misses a major point, perhaps the most important point. Except in the broadest brushstrokes, the ethics of life, liberty, livelihood, property, and contract are not religious in nature. The same Bible these people thump forbids the pornography these people download, the prostitutes they hire, and many other things we all do with comfort, and should do with comfort. Anybody comfortable with "under God" in the Pledge and uncomfortable with "under Allah" in the Pledge is missing the point. (So are people who get all snippy about nativity scenes and Christmas trees in town squares. Just because most Americans like Christian symbols in the holiday season doesn't mean anybody is forcing anybody to become a Christian.)
For good reason there is no mention of any diety in the Constitution of the United States and only the mention of "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" in the Declaration of Independence when referring to what we humans are like and to what we are entitled. That's it. The only use of un-named "He" in the Declaration of Independence is to King George III, not the Lord in heaven. Religion is a personal matter (protected by Liberty), not part of our system of government.
The best part of these five pillars is they protect our ability to have fun. Material wealth gives us ability to do things we like to do and liberty gives us the choice to pursue them. America means I can drive where I want, fly where I want, take a boat where I want, and do what I want when I get there. I don't have to get permission from the government or even tell the government where I'm going and what I'm doing 'cuz it's none of their damned business. Sure, I have to respect the rights and liberty of others, but our country is big enough for everybody with enough jobs for everybody and enough fun for everybody.
Today is 2019 October 18, Friday,
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