The Declaration of Independence
The Constitution of the United States
2012 April 2, Monday

WARNING: A lot of people aren't going to like this piece. There's a lot to annoy left-wingers and right-wingers alike. I'm not even sure my libertarian friends will concur. Still, there are some points that need to be made.

     There are so many misplaced ideas floating around both wings of the political aisle that I figure someone ought to point out what really is special about the American Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. More importantly, I believe it's important to point out some things that folks have been trying to attach to those special documents to further causes that are either irrelevant or contradictory to them.

     The left blew it when they relegated these timeless concepts to the past. Methinks they would be less smug about it if they had to face the millions of Americans unemployed and the tens of millions underemployed by their actions, by the difference between their values and our country's founding ideals.

     The right also blew it when they immortalized these documents. They are the beautiful expression of these universal, timeless ideals from a specific point on the space-time continuum of freedom, not divine utterance, not the final say. They didn't defend America against the welfare state or the religious right because those institutions did not exist in 1789. Not only should we respect these writings as the law of our land, we should honor their principles in new areas.


     As I understand the intellectual history of what we call libertarian ideology today, the idea of freedom being an essential part of human existence started during the middle ages. People have fought for freedom in one form or another as far back as history has been recorded, and, I expect, a long time before that. But the notion that universal human freedom is a core component of an ultimately-positive society is new and special.

     I admit I haven't studied this history myself, so these ideas are a collection of what I have gleaned from discussions with bright people who have studied it.

     The Magna Carta defines specific liberties and acknowledges that the king's power is not absolute. Even in the English monarchy, the rule of law supersedes the will of majesty. Over the next few centuries, a community of really-smart thinkers expanded these concepts. Among this community were John Locke who defined "classical liberal" (today called "libertarian") ideals and Adam Smith who expanded the freedom ideals into economics and pointed out that a community of independent individuals (the "invisible hand" of the free market) makes better global, collective decisions and produces a more-productive, fairer economy than any central planning. Spread over six centuries, this community of thinkers didn't all know each other. (In contrast, most of the great minds of western "classical" music were alive at the same time and knew each other.)

     These now-called-"libertarian" ideas, combined with a strong resentment of English royalty, caused the American colonies to fight a revolution for freedom and to frame that revolution in a glorious document, the Declaration of Independence. Written in 1776, this short screed defines specific freedoms to be universal and non-negotiable and addresses the crown's specific violations of them. Thirteen years later these ideals were codified into a specific government by the Constitution of the United States. Central to the Constitution is the notion that government is limited to defending the rights defined in the Declaration of Independence, internally through law and externally through national defense. In doing this, governments within the United States, federal, state, and local, may not, themselves, violate those rights. This is made specific in the first ten amendments to the Constitution called the Bill of Rights. The personal rights in these papers extended naturally to similar freedom in economic commerce.


     The articulation of the basic rights of free human beings is essential and unique, the stuff about created equal and life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Based on the last few millennia of human history, including the United States since the so-called "Progressive Era," these are anything but self-evident or uninalienable. They are a dear and fragile treasure and it is not only important but essential that they be treated as fundamental rights. Once we find ourselves negotiating which of them we can keep, we lose the ability to achieve the greatness they offer.

     The limitation of government's role is also essential. There will always be short-term reasons that sound compelling for the bureaucracy to grow. The government should defend our rights against each other, against outside invaders, and against its own forces. In addition, it can mediate disputes to enforce what Ayn Rand calls "the sanctity of contract." When we agree to something in a legal sense, it makes sense that a government of law has the power to enforce our agreements. There is nothing else we want government to do for us. We're supposed to find other ways, cooperative rather than coercive ways, to make other good things happen in our lives.

     We don't have a democracy. We have found out both here and elsewhere how evil the short-term majority can be. (Did you read "The Lottery" or see the short film version?) Also, public sentiment generally favors growth of government, especially when the majority benefit from imposing on a minority. We have (or are supposed to have) specific rules to keep that from happening. (If a majority wants to do something outside the scope of government, or even a significantly-large minority, then nobody's stopping them from giving charity to poor people, providing themselves (or others) with health care, supporting revolutions against dictators in northern Africa, or funding colleges and universities.)

     The economic growth these values stimulated was amazing. I've heard quotes of 25%-per-year growth in the United States over the nineteenth century (1801 through 1900) even after paying for two terrible wars and abolishing slavery. The increase of government has meant a decrease in growth until, sometime around 1966, the growth stopped and we're simply hoping our decline will slow down, or stop increasing, during this administration.

     Besides the amazing increase in total productivity during our nation's first, economically-free century, we found ourselves with a burgeoning middle class. There's something for everybody to do in our country, or there was until the job market was politicized with forced unionization and other controls on jobs not conceived of during the formation of our country.

     The American documents produced a free society in many ways. We can criticize whom we want and go where we want, driving or flying without government intervention. (That's private cars and airplanes, the airlines are regulated.)

     True story: A buddy of mine drives into a gas station and the guy working there tells him he has to come in the other way. He asks why and the fellow says, "'Cuz you have to." No, I don't have to, I can buy my gas somewhere else if I don't like it. I'm an American dammit! Another true story: Another buddy of mine, not American born, had a job he hated here. By the time he and his employer parted ways, he was really furious. He's calling them names and writing vitriolic diatribes about them and my American buddies and I don't get it. We don't put up with that here, we explained. If you're mad enough to do that, then you had to have been mad enough to quit long before. (Before they were an arm of the government, the early unions broke up the "company towns" that held people captive to their jobs, and that was a really good thing to do.)

     All of this positive stuff comes from these two pieces of paper (or parchment, or whatever they're written on). Actually, all of this goodness comes from a mindset that is wonderfully expressed in these two documents. It's the mindset, the rules of engagement and the commitment to freedom in the face of temptation to do otherwise, that earned us all this benefit. When people come here from other countries and then try to make our politics like theirs, I ask them why they came here in the first place? "Well, the good jobs are here?" Yeah, why do you think that is? Maybe it's because those values generated all those good jobs. (The Mexicans are still annoyed that not only did we win a big chunk of their country when we got Texas in 1836, but we got the part with the paved roads.)


     Slavery was "an elephant in the room" when these documents were written. The founding fathers that wrote about self-evident, uninalienable rights were slave owners. We can put them down for that, but that doesn't mitigate the value of what they said and did, not then, not after the Civil War, and not today.

     The other elephant crowding the same room was religion. If many of the bright people in 1989 were atheists, then I have to figure many of the bright people in 1789 were atheists. Just as they had to put the lid on the slavery issue, America's founders had to write to a religious audience without violating anybody's freedom of religion. So references to deity were softened to "Laws of Nature and Nature's God" and "endowed by their Creator." Whatever the picture, religion was a greater threat than politics well into the nineteenth century. (The Spanish Inquisition ended in 1834.) So while we're trying to eliminate the horror of the growing state, we must be careful not to court the greater oppression of the church.

     These are not divine documents. They are a snapshot in time of the articulation of the timeless concepts of freedom, the best exposition we have today. That nobody has done better in 220 years is not testimony to the divinity of the Declaration and Constitution, but rather a tribute to the amazing intellect that Thomas Jefferson and his crowd had between their ears.

     Never mind the poetry, the concepts in these documents are neither self-evident nor uninalienable. They are not part of any natural law. Building the intricate legal structure of private property, complete with contract enforcement and keeping our rights safe, is a terribly complex challenge. Good law is hard in any case, and all the harder if we're trying to make it last for centuries. The law specified in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is great law, perhaps the best ever written. It took centuries of great minds to get there.

     American independence is not, by itself, so terribly special. We celebrate 1776 July 4 with healthy reverence, but many other countries bring the same zeal to their first days on their own. In particular, India celebrates 1947 August 15, Israelis are enthusiastic about 1948 May 14, and Canadians celebrate 1867 July 1 with similar enthusiasm. It isn't independence or reverence of it that makes America special. It's what we are independent from that makes us special. Alas, almost everything in United States politics since President Woodrow Wilson is part of what we fought for independence from.

     There were no laws against abortion or gay marriage in 1789. I don't think there were any anti-drug laws either. It never occurred to the framers to comment on those issues. Leaving people alone and not bothering them about private issues is central to American freedom. People with a political agenda on those issues tend to see their opinions reflected in these documents.

     My conclusion is those looking for conservative values of religion and natural law and personal morals in the U.S. Constitution are seeing what isn't there. These documents are amazing in their own right as part of a history of articulating the fight for freedom.


     Maybe an engine of freedom and productive is supposed to last forever. If we can just keep it balanced, then it will keep rolling and rolling along making life wonderful for those lucky enough to be its citizens. Alas, history hasn't worked that way.

     The other approach is that any execution of an idiology has a lifetime. Think of Eric Blair's story Animal Farm, written under the pseudonym George Orwell, about the communist idiology going to hell in Russia. How long did it take before Russia's leadership "of the people" was as terrible as the czars were?

     A free country is no different. It runs for a while, it gets a little contamination (the Louisiana Purchase, for example), it gets a little worse, then it gets a lot worse, and finally it becomes the Obama-nation with half the economy of the once-free United States going to government and most of that going directly to corporate contributors without any pretense of benefit for anybody deserving. King George III couldn't have wished for that much despotic power in his wildest dreams.

     Maybe we can fix America. If we can, then maybe we should. Or maybe we should start over someplace else. (America's founders didn't try to fix England. Instead they started a new country over here.) We have to decide how to keep freedom's flame burning, specifically the kind of freedom described in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.




If you like what you read here (Yeah, right!), then here are my other American-issues essays.

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