Reflections on the revolution in America
Six principles



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According to the Founders and other learned men of their noble generation, in a well-ordered polity, in a society populated by educated men and women of integrity, political life should be limited and shaped according to timeless and universal truths. In such a society, political action and compromise would be principled action and compromise, action and compromise constrained by the principles of natural justice; and any politician who violated such principles would be rejected as a rascal. What, then, are the fundamental principles of social and political organization that a truly civil society ought to accept as evident and good? In what follows I summarize six social, political, and moral principles, and their immediate corollaries that, according to the Founders, ought to limit political organization and action. And while the list is far from exhaustive, my hope is that a simple summarizing of those principles will put people in a more reflective mood regarding our present course.

1. All men by virtue of their common humanity have natural rights and corresponding duties; all men are under the jurisdiction and protection of the moral law, a law rooted in the very nature of things. The Founders accepted that as a bedrock principle, and declared a war of independence over 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." Hence, if an act is morally permissible for you, then it is morally permissible for your neighbor as well; if an act is morally illicit for your neighbor, then it is morally illicit for you too. Jesus, the greatest of the sages, put it thus: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

2. The state, being a mere organization of men, is subject to the same moral law as individual men. Jefferson put it with eloquence when he wrote, "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." According to Jefferson, we simply delegate to the state that which we reserve the right to do ourselves. And since we cannot delegate that which we do not have, it follows that the state is limited by the same moral law that governs all human action. Hence, if an action is morally wrong for you and your neighbor, then it is morally wrong for the state as well.

3. Government, in essence, is organized force. Washington, perhaps the most respected of the Founders, is said to have put the matter thus: "Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." Now, since the state is subject to the same moral law as individual men, the state should be limited to using force in the same manner morally prescribed for individual men; there are moral limits on the use of force that apply to the state and individual men alike. A recognition of this principle leads quickly to the key question of government and its proper role in the life of society: when is it morally permissible to use force?

This, in turn, suggests a practical test for any proposed law or coercive government policy. Put simply, we should always inquire whether it would be morally licit for us — indeed, for our worst enemy — to use force in the manner being suggested for the government. Perhaps even better: we should always ask ourselves whether we would tolerate our parents — the people who love us most and would sacrifice life and limb for us — using force against us to achieve even an admittedly worthy end. I suspect lots of fashionable rules would be eliminated if that test were consistently applied. What adult would want his mother bossing him around, under threat of force, with respect to smoking and the use of trans-fatty acid cooking oil? And if you wouldn't tolerate your mother's employing force on those issues, then a fortiori you should reject some nosy and foreign bureaucrat's threatening to lock you up for eating French fries.

4. Given our scarred nature, few men can be trusted with power, and no man can be trusted with absolute power. Lord Acton put it famously when he warned, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Moreover, as Hayek showed, it is the least scrupulous among us who tend to seek and acquire political power; it is the knaves, not the honest among us, who lust for control. Hence, government must be strictly limited and decentralized, our liberties jealously guarded, and we the people always skeptical of those seeking and wielding political power. And once again a practical test is suggested by this principle, a test often mocked by the corporate media: virtue is the most important characteristic of a leader.

5. A good end can never justify or make right evil means. Even the noblest end must never be realized through evil means; the way to defeat evil is not through evil but rather through the strenuous and confident seeking of the good. Thus, for example, it is never right to rob Peter to pay Paul.

6. Finally, lest there be any doubt, the will of the majority is not to be confused with the will of the most high, for the rabble can be as dangerous as the despot. Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism (properly understood), understood that. "In a democracy," he wrote, "the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority." The Founders would be appalled at the modern spectacle of warring interest groups and pandering politicians competing for a spot at the government trough.

These, then, in summary form, are some of the truths that should inform — indeed rigidly constrain — the political process in any civilized society, at least according to the Founders and like-minded men of their age. Unfortunately, they are the very principles that are under siege, oftentimes by those who most vocally profess great admiration for the Founders and their vision for this country.

The Founders believed in a government of laws and not of men; in decentralization and not centralization; in authority deftly exercised for the common good, not raw power imposed in the name of deranged ideology. To my mind — sporadic and dishonest appeals to the wisdom of the Founders notwithstanding — it is obvious that our current political masters embrace the latter perversion in each of these dichotomies — Republicans and Democrats alike. The above list could be expanded, but I think the six principles enumerated above serve to remind us of what has been lost and what can be regained.

April 30, 2008 

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