A public development of my political and philosophical musings. Occasional thoughts on current events. Primarily for personal satisfaction.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

What I mean when I talk about the United States of America

The first thing to be clear on when discussing this country is that there are two Americas. There’s the America made up of the dirt that sits between the Atlantic and the Pacific, between Mexico and Canada, and there’s America the idea that government is subservient to the people and the people have rights that are independent of government. The first America is the lesser. Love of it is more jingoism than patriotism. Mine is a love of the second and because it is a notion of rights and people’s relationship to each other and their government, it is not limited by border. It is universal.

I’m a ‘City on the Hill’ kind of guy. To me, what makes this country great is not its size, economic power, or war record, but the idea that started it:

"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."

Everything worth knowing about legitimate power is contained in these sentences.

First: “all men are created equal” (I regard Jefferson as simply following the grammatical conventions of the time and really meaning ‘all people are created equal’). But what, exactly, does this mean? Clearly not all people are equally smart, equally rich, equally healthy, witty or wise. What this phrase means, if it means anything, is that each person’s life is of equal value and therefore each person must be equal before the law. 'Society' doesn't exist in any concrete sense, it is merely shorthand for a large group of individuals living and working together. I don't think anyone would argue that any individual could declare one person's life more valuable than another's; therefore, no group of individuals could make that declaration either (since any group decision is merely the accounting of a series of individual's decisions).

Besides, any standard we might use to value one person over another is culturally based and culturally biased. There is no objective criteria through which society could declare that one person’s life is more valuable than another’s. I find that the phrase “all men are created equal” provides the answer to almost any social question; a complete philosophy can be built around it.

Second: “We are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights.” Regardless of how you define ‘creator,’ nobody was created by their government. That is, government can neither grant nor deny certain rights. These are not American rights being guaranteed by the constitution; we have our rights because we are human beings and everyone everywhere has them always (as a practical matter, the government can control our exercise of our rights, but only because it has bigger guns than we do).

Further, rights are unalienable—each person is the sole possessor of his or her own human rights. They are not subject to popular vote, and they cannot be revoked whenever it is convenient or safe to do so. Even democracy has its limits. As Ben Franklin pointed out, "democracy must be more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner." There is no moral foundation for government interference in our rights.

Third: Governments derive their just powers “from the consent of the governed.” We often have a careless attitude that government power comes from god, or just is, or some such. That it’s self-justifying. But that is wrong; it comes from the people and that has one very important implication—people can give to the government no more than that which they have themselves. And if an authority does not first reside with the people, then it cannot reside in the government. Any legitimate government then recognizes the rights of its people, not because it chooses to, but because it must. And the people need not be grateful that the government recognizes their rights, because it gives them not one thing more than it owes them. Rather, the people should be furious at each and every violation of those rights.

That government is merely a tool for advancing the public good, that people have rights superior to government, that basic human rights trump everything, even democracy. This is the genius, however imperfectly realized, of the United States of America.
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