We live in the time of a desperate struggle no politician seems willing to name. Our nation is sinking back into the swamp from which it emerged, in a world still dominated by primitive, tribalism from which we seem unable or unwilling to escape. We do not examine our philosophy any longer, and we do not consider the meaning of our abandonment of principles, much less the result of such evasions. A culture is only as good as its underlying philosophy, but ours is damaged seemingly beyond repair. America had always suffered from contradictions, but now they are not exceptional “one-offs” but the the norm. Those of us who have bothered to understand these dire problems have grown weary, and I am among those who no longer wish to repeat the same things, because the intended audience seems unmoved. We are giving away our liberty, and for all of the missteps of the last two-hundred years, America survived despite them, but this situation will not persist indefinitely. If the America our founders had envisioned is to be reborn, rejuvenated, and revived, we must do the work. We must explain it. We must be its advocates. We must be willing to have the arguments. Whether America will survive or perish, it is up to us to make its case, but to do so, we must first understand what had made America.
To understand what had been unique about America, let us consider that feature, the underlying notion, which had been at the heart of its founding, its growth, and its success. Let us be careful to carve out only that which had made this country substantially different from all the others, lest we fall into the trap of misidentifying its greatest virtues. Among all the things one might say about America, it’s most fundamental principle had been that “man is endowed by his Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Whether you took that endowment to be a product of “Nature or Nature’s God,” the simplicity of this idea is that which had set America apart. For the first time in all of human history, a government was formed that declared that it was not the ultimate arbiter and owner of all men under the sphere of its control. In all other systems before it, and all the systems arising since, men were chattel of the state in some form or fashion. In short, they were still property of the tribe. This was true whether you were subject to the “Divine Right of Kings,” or property of the collective as in the Soviet Union. This has remained true in all the welfare states of Europe, and with a sickening degree of rapidity, has been increasingly adopted here in the United States over the last century. These are the definitions of statism. America had been the first system to reject statism.
There are those who will immediately critique the American experiment because it permitted slavery for most of its first one-hundred years. Despicable though that institution had been, what they hope you will not notice about the former American institution of slavery, now dead more than one-and-one-half centuries, is that which it had not been: Ownership of men by the state. This distinction, while superficial and meaningless to the objects of slavery, was the only reason the practice could be ended. Once ended, America was a country without men as chattel. In fact, it was the only period in all of human history in which such a society ever existed. It was the period of the greatest unrivaled growth and economic prosperity generated by man. All the prosperity that has followed was born of this era. We linger as a modern society now, our vestiges of civilization now only a facade, because of the achievements of that industrial age, the age of capitalism. It is only recently that the bequeath of that generation is finally running out of steam, because we have destroyed its underpinnings in degrees and steps ever since. We have permitted the destruction of liberty, and slowly, in bits and pieces, returned mankind to the ownership of the state. What we face today is only the last act of a play set in motion more than a century ago, by men whose motives were short-run and political. It was the birth of national “pragmatism.”
The principle that man is an end in and of himself, without reference to another soul, had been the bedrock of America. That principle has been polluted, deprecated, denounced, and demolished. Now we see the abysmal spectacle of man the slave to man via the commands of the state. We have escaped only to permit ourselves to again become captive to the same old treachery. In what other manner can you explain the idea that a person subject to the laws of the United States must now be held to pay support for every artifact of modern convenience for every other soul? How else can one explain Obamacare, SNAP, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, AFDC, WIC, Section 8 Housing, “Obama-phones,” “Free” Internet, and all the myriad other “benefits” or “entitlements” of our allegedly civilized age? We have no need to complain of a military-industrial complex, or of foreign aid, for all the evils they may impose, because these represent a pittance of the national expenditure when compared with all the rest. No, what we have permitted, at first in small pieces and by small enumerations, is the enslavement of all men to all men via the artifices of the state.
We love to speak of our freedom of speech, our freedom of religion and the press, and our right to keep and bear arms, but these too are now taking a beating under the enslavement of all to all. You have the right to free speech lest you offend somebody. You have the right of free exercise of religion lest it offend somebody. You have the right of a free press, but no press anywhere, except perhaps in small ways in the blogosphere is free any longer. You have the right to bear arms in your own defense, but only in such fashion as it doesn’t offend or frighten anybody, or permit you the ability to actually repel somebody who might attack you. You have the right to pursue happiness, but no right to hold onto the material implementations of happiness that your own exertions may have afforded to you otherwise. These liberties were all born of the notion that no man is owned by the state, and yet slowly and seemingly irretrievably, these “rights” have been yielded back to the state. Still, these are mere symptoms of the greater disease that is rotting away the core and health of the American political environment. The root of this disease is philosophical, but it will not be cured by political slogans.
Men must not be owned, either directly by other men, or through a surrogate called “the state” or “society.” So long as we permit this idea to fester and grow, it is a cancer slowly metastasizing to all parts of the body of American culture and politics. It has destroyed our philosophy. It has permitted egregious inconsistencies and contradictions in our laws. It has enabled the would-be slave-masters to re-establish a foothold in a wider fashion than nineteenth century slavery ever could. What we have permitted to be lost is the philosophical core of our argument, and every retreat or defeat in politics of the last century has been merely a symptom of the surrender of this principle: Man is endowed with unalienable rights, and it is governments’ sole legitimate purpose to defend them. Instead, we now see that government has become the worst offender, and we wonder why we can make no ground on subsidiary concretes.
If you wish to salvage America, if it is to be done at all, the only answer is to restore in law and in fact the philosophy that holds man as his own rightful property, and his life and his liberties as the material implementation of that fact. Please do not bother about statist notions of “obligations” or “responsibilities” of free men. The only actual, logical “obligation” of a free man is to respect those same rights among other men, and his only collectivized “responsibility” is to pay for the upholding of those rights among all men. This is the sole justification of governments, and it is the sole reason that any form of taxation is logically (and morally) permissible. This means a court system, to resolve disputes among men; a policing mechanism, to apprehend those who violate the rights of men; a national defense to protect against massive attacks on the rights of men. Deprived of the ability to use the power of the state as a gun aimed at the heads of other men in the name of their own peculiar interests, with the threat of a watchful state waiting to punish such aggressors, men must deal with one another by volitional means, i.e., “free trade” or “commerce.”
This had been our founders’ vision. To the degree they failed to “perfect” it, they nevertheless left us the means by which to do so. Instead, we have tarnished their ideals, and rejected their core philosophy in favor of the “pragmatic” expediencies of the moment. We have failed to educate our young, and we have failed to remind ourselves why it is that America had been different, and why there was so much to be gained here for all men, everywhere. It was not the material wealth of America’s resources that permitted her growth, but the idea at the heart of its laws and traditions that each person is an end in themselves, and that no person or collection of persons had the authority to disparage those rights. Today, rights are being disparaged and deprecated at a mind-numbing pace, and we have none to blame but ourselves. If we are to resurrect liberty from its dying gasps, we must know and publicly identify the cause of its impending death, and we must not shrink from standing in the breech in liberty’s waning moments. Stand there, and others will accompany you, bolstered by your courage. If not, we’ve already lost.