Posts tagged Declaration of Independence

Column on Self-Defense v. Isolation

Self-defense vs. Isolation

Tibor R. Machan

Where the idea comes from is not really relevant–it could be neo-conservatism, imperialism, compassion, whatnot. But it is right that it should be debated, especially by Republicans who aren’t beholden to the legacy of Woodrow Wilson in matter of foreign relations. Republicans, especially those with conservative leanings who are committed to preserving America’s ideal of using force against other countries only when those countries embark upon an aggressive foreign policy toward American citizens or allies, need to take a renewed close look at their country’s basic principles, including those pertaining to dealing with foreigners.

It was, after all, George Washington himself who, in his farewell message, warned the country against getting entangled in foreign wars. Yes, that was many years ago but the principle still holds, just as it holds in the criminal law: using force on others is only justified in self-defense. (Principles, if sound, don’t change much over the centuries–not in physics, biology, or public policy!)

Admittedly the country’s domestic public affairs have long abandoned this idea. The US government now routinely coerces its citizens for all kinds of purposes. Except for a few steps in the right direction, such as the abolition of the military draft, most public policies are based on the practice of imposing burdens on citizens that they have not assumed freely. Even if one buys the notion that some taxation is justified, which is actually not true, the massive confiscation of private property by means of taxation is way out of line with the principles of the American political system. Just consider that one’s rights to one’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are supposedly unalienable. That is part of the Declaration of Independence and has made it into, at least indirectly, the laws of the land (e.g., the Fifth Amendment).

Yet courts over the decades have given the go ahead to politicians and bureaucrats to proceed as they wish with the task of raising funds for government’s innumerable expenses–most of them unconstitutional by the tenets of a sensible reading of that document and only legal by virtue of corrupt rulings by the US Supreme and other courts–by extorting them from the citizenry. And then there are prohibitions galore, such as the war and drugs, thousands of regulations that in fact amount to prior restraint (imposing burdens the regulated haven’t been shown to deserve via due process), etc., all the way down to local blue laws!

All of these have pretty much made it an insidious but widespread policy to treat US citizens by coercing for various alleged public purposes cooked up by special interests. In light of this, it is no surprise that so many people hold that embarking on coercive foreign policies is just fine–if what the government of Libya or any other country is doing is wrong, it is the business of the American government to intervene.

But is this right? Is this how human beings, including those in governments, ought to conduct themselves? If one tests this by applying the standards of ordinary morality and even much of the criminal law, the answer is in the negative. No one is authorized to invade a next door neighbor for misconduct, not unless that misconduct consist of attacks on oneself or one’s family. As a private citizen one may have reason to subdue a violent neighbor but even that is only justified if the authorities to whom this job is delegated are unavailable–e.g., as in a citizen’s arrest.

None of the wars the US is conducting now can reasonably be considered defensive. One need not hold to any kind of isolationism to appreciate this fact. Indeed, there ought to be a category of foreign affairs policy that’s called “defensivist.” It could justify some military action but all of it would have to be in defense of the citizens of the country. In fact, some of the hurdles still on the books, although mostly ignored or evaded by the government, basically imply that this outlook on when America may engage in a war is still the ruling framework or paradigm. But only in spirit, unfortunately.

Now that some of those in the limelight are raising questions about whether America’s aggressive stance toward some other countries is justified, it may be possible to arrive at a rational philosophy of foreign involvement. If some argue that it is isolationist to stick to self-defense–national defense properly understood–it needs to be replied that it is no isolation to be ready to fight when attacked or when some more subtle ways of initiated violence is directed at one’s country. Isolationism is irrational since others may drag one into a fight that should not be tolerated without proper resistance. But a defensive stance is perfectly rational, indeed the only one morally acceptable and conducive to promoting peaceful solutions.

The case for interventionism may rest on widespread precedence in our society of the uses of coercive public policies but that doesn’t justify it. It used to be the norm for most countries to attack their neighbors in the name of territorial expansion, need for resources, etc. It didn’t make it right. Nor is it for the US to play the role of global police.

Column on the Proper Promotion of Liberty

The Proper Promotion of Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

The policy of imposing liberal regimes around the globe has proven to be a disaster and no wonder. It is simply not feasible to coerce people to be free–the idea is an oxymoron.

It doesn’t follow, however, that countries that are largely committed, even if only rhetorically, to a regime of human liberty–one that follows the political principles of the Declaration of Independence–can do nothing to advance freedom outside their borders. Sure, this is nearly impossible if they are themselves only so-so committed to a free system, if their own legal order is a mixture between tyranny and liberty.

Those abroad who have a strong interest in maintaining their unjustified rule over a population–e.g., the likes of leaders in China, Libya, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, etc.–can then point out whenever they are being criticized for their oppressive policies that there are similar ones where the criticism comes from. The hypocrisy of it all will be glaring and will tend to discredit the critic’s position even if, to the extent it stresses the values of human liberty, it contains merit. Indeed, in some cases such hypocritical criticism may undermine the very position in favor of liberty, having shown up the critic as inconsistent, wobbly about the ideals on which the criticism is based.

But still those in government responsible for forging foreign policy could, if they had their wits about them, stress that what they are promoting is a system of liberty, never mind the lapses within their own domestic policies. Even an occasional liar can advocate telling the truth if he admits to his failings at the same time.

Of course, those outside the government, who have no direct hand in embracing a mixed up political philosophy–like the one we find in most Western countries and which are often being shown up for the confusing idea they are by critics both at home and abroad–are not hampered by this problem of sounding hypocritical when they champion liberty. When members of the Atlas Foundation or the Cato Institute travel across the world teaching about human liberty to thousands who attend their seminars, they do not have to embrace any inconsistencies. They can make it abundantly clear that they oppose their own system’s ill advised attempts to combine free and tyrannical policies. Anyone who is in favor of liberty across the globe and realizes how self-defeating it is to try to advance this cause by means of force of arms can give their support to those private groups that are consistent advocates of the free system.

It is, of course, necessary to be well educated about the nature of such mixed systems and to learn how to identify the impact of the policies that reflect the principles of liberty versus those that violate it. When, for example, loose talk blames the free market for the recent financial fiasco, it is necessary to be able to rebut such nonsense, to show that (a) the financial mess had nothing to do with genuine libertarian policies and that (b) prolonged interventionism has produced the mess (e.g., the machinations of the Federal Reserve and the innumerable government regulatory agencies that have distorted the principles of liberty throughout the economy and produced perverse incentives). There are now many fine books and papers, by excellent scholars, making this case in both technical and lay language and some command of these will help make the case.

Even the government–or those in it who do favor liberty in consistent ways–can use some of the tools of diplomacy to advance the case for liberty abroad. Government officials need not blindly comply with the wishes of foreign officials as they honor their own corrupt systems and can, instead, make their contempt evident by various subtle means.

The cause of liberty merits the sustained exercise of the human capacity for ingenuity in teaching important lessons to those who need to learn them. None of this guarantees success, of course, but success is far more likely if the promotion of the free system is itself unmarred by inconsistency and hypocrisy.

Column on A Crucial Constitutional Fact

A Crucial Constitutional Fact

Tibor R. Machan

In my efforts to defend the free society and its basic principles, the idea of natural individual human rights, I run across the objection–advance by both conservatives and “liberals”–that once a constitution has been accepted, it overrides those principles. Putting it differently, while perhaps human beings do have the basic rights to life, liberty, property and so forth in, as it is called, the state of nature–that is, prior to the formation of a community with a legal foundation–once that state is given up and a community is formed, they no longer have those basic rights. Instead, they have delegated to government or the legal system the authority to limit the previous freedoms they enjoyed. So instead of the constitution limiting the legal authorities or government, it supposedly limits the rights and liberties of the citizenry.

There is some plausibility in this since in the case of contracts when people enter into them they often bind themselves to obligations and responsibilities they didn’t previously have–e.g., when they marry or lease an apartment. So perhaps the constitution is that kind of a document, through which people commit themselves to abide by rules, even serve rulers, they would be free to ignore prior to entering civil society. This certainly is one rationale being advanced in opposition to libertarians who hold that what the constitution achieves, if properly conceived and instituted, is to establish the protection and elaboration of the rights of the citizenry, something they arguably lacked outside civil society.

Yet even in the admittedly murky case of the U. S. Constitution and the founding of the republic, there is evidence any lay person, let alone legal expert, can detect pointing to the libertarian interpretation that a proper constitution does not give away but attempts to secure individual rights. First of all the Declaration of Independence makes it clear what the American founders set out to do with their efforts to institute a government via the U. S. Constitution. The precise road to the establishment of free government may well be complicated but once one realizes that at heart government is supposed to be institute so as to secure the rights laid out in the body of the Declaration, there is little reasonable doubt that the ensuring setting up of a constitutional government wasn’t meat to abolish individual rights, quite the contrary. Government was meant to give security to those rights in light of the plain fact that without a legal system and its competent administration the rights individual have would be at the mercy of anyone bent upon violating them. Yes, people do have those rights in the state of nature or prior to entering civil society but their security would be dependent entirely on how well individuals are able to defend themselves, without the benefit of a specialized body of men and women who could be counted upon to provide the expertise needed to make those right as secure as humanly possible.

If one then looks at the U. S. Constitution itself, there are other clues to reading it along libertarian lines. The Bill of Rights not only mentions several of the rights that are to be safeguarded by the legal system but makes explicit reference to non-enumerated rights, ones the citizenry retains even if they are not mentioned in the document. This, it would appear, makes it clear, unambiguous, that leaving the state of nature does not imply at all giving up the basic, natural, individual human rights all human beings have.

The point of joining civil society as far as the American system is concerned isn’t, then, to give up but to secure the basic and all the derivative rights human beings have. Those who argue otherwise aren’t on solid grounds. That much is pretty clear, so they must reinterpret the American founding to shore up their case for American statism. Yet some of the most influential legal scholars advance this untenable position–namely that the law in the American tradition aims to limit the liberty and rights of the citizenry–and numerous prominent law schools teach it as well.

Let me make a final point about rights. Much communitarian thinking from both Left and Rights laments that Americans are too fond of rights but not of responsibilities or obligations. Yet if one realizes that having rights also implies having obligations, this lament is quite misguided. Everyone has the legal obligation or responsibility to respect the rights to everyone else. And that is just as it should be, with other obligations and responsibilities left to be worked out in the private sector, mainly via morality and contract law.

Essay on Reexamining Democracy

Reexamining Democracy

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last several decades of American political life the idea of liberty has taken a back seat to that of democracy. Liberty involves human beings governing themselves, being sovereign citizens, while democracy is a method by which decisions are reached within groups. In a just society it is liberty that is primary – the entire point of law is to secure liberty for everyone, to make sure that the rights of individuals to their lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness is protected from any human agent bent on violating them. Democracy is but a byproduct of liberty. Because we are all supposed to be free to govern ourselves, whenever some issue of public policy faces the citizenry, they are all entitled to take part. Democratic government rests, in a free society, on the right of every individual to take whatever actions are needed to influence public policy.

Because freedom or liberty is primary, the scope of public policy and, thus, of democracy in a just society is strictly limited. The reason is that free men and women may not be intruded on even if a majority of their fellows would decide to do so. If one is free, which means a self-governing person, then even the majority of ones fellows lacks the authority to take over ones governance without ones consent. This is what the US Declaration of Independence means when it mentions that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. In a just society no one loses his or her authority for self-government without giving it up as a matter of choice. No one gets to operate on you, no matter how wise and competent, without your giving your consent, and the same is true, in a just system, about imposing duties and obligations on people. They must agree to this. If they do not, they aren’t to be ordered about at all. The only apparent exception is when it comes to laws that protect everyone’s rights. One may indeed be ordered not to kill, rob, rape, burglarize, and assault other persons, even if one fails to consent to this. And when the legal authorities do this job of protecting individual rights, they may order one to abstain from all such aggressive actions.

However, this doesn’t actually involve intruding on people, only being duly authorized, via the consent of the governed, to protect everyone from intrusions. It is along these lines that the idea of limited government – or legal authority – arises: it may only act to protect rights, to impose the laws that achieve that goal, nothing more. Again, as the Declaration of Independence notes, it is to secure our rights that governments are instituted, not for any other purpose. Of course, this idea of limited government hardly figures into considerations of public policy in the USA or elsewhere. We have never actually confined government to this clearly limited, just purpose. It has always gone beyond that and today its scope is nearly totalitarian (albeit somewhat “permissive”), the very opposite of being limited. But there is no doubt that even though liberty has been nearly forgotten as an ideal of just government in America as well as elsewhere, democracy does remain something of an operational ideal. In this way liberty has been curtailed tremendously, mainly to the minor sphere of everyone having a right to take part in public decision-making. Whereas the original classical liberal idea is that we are free in all realms and democracy concerns mainly who will administer a system of laws that are required to protect our liberty, the corrupt version of this idea is that democracy addresses everything in our lives and the only liberty we have left is to take part in the decision-making about whatever is taken to be a so called “public” matter.

One way this is clearly evident is how many of the top universities in the USA construe public administration to be a topic having to do primarily with the way democracy works. Indeed, after the demise of the Soviet Union, even though the major issue should have been the establishment and maintenance of a regime of individual liberty, the experts in academe who write and teach the rest of the world about public administration are nearly all focused on democracy, not on liberty.

For example, the courses at America’s premier public administration graduate school, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, are mainly focused on problems of democracy. At this institution nearly 40 percent of the students attending come from 75 foreign countries, many of them from those that used to be under Soviet rule, and what they focus on in nearly all their courses is democracy, not liberty. Assignments in these courses tend all to raise problems about implementing democratic governance and leave the issue of how individual liberty should be secured as practically irrelevant. Or, to put it more precisely, the liberty, or human right, that is of interest in most of these courses is the liberty to take part in democratic decision-making. (“Human rights” has come to refer in most of these course and their texts mainly to the right to vote and to take part in the political process!)

Yes, of course, that is a bit of genuine liberty that many of the people of the world have never enjoyed, so for them it is a significant matter, to be sure. But it is clearly not the liberty that the Declaration of Independence mentions when it affirms that all of us are equal in having unalienable rights to our lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness. The Declaration speaks of a very wide scope of individual liberty, while the premier public administration school of America teaches, at least by implication, that the only liberty of any importance is the liberty to take part in public policy determination.

This, I submit, is a travesty. Once democracy is treated as the premier public value, with individual liberty cast to the side except as far as the citizenry’s freedom to take part in democratic decision-making, the scope of government is no longer limited in principle or in practice. Nearly anything can become a public policy issue, so long as some measure of democracy is involved in reaching decisions about it. And that, in fact, turns out to be a serious threat to democracy itself. Because when democracy trumps liberty, democracy can destroy itself, and the law could permit the democratically reached destruction of democracy itself!

That is just what happened in the Weimar Republic, where a democratic election put Hitler in power and destroyed democracy. If you ever wonder why it is that public forums, including the Sunday TV magazine programs, the Op Ed pages of most newspapers, the feature articles of most magazines do not discuss human liberty but fret mostly about democracy, this is the reason: the major educational institutions tend not to care about liberty at all and have substituted a very limited version of it, namely, democracy, as their primary concern. Once that is accomplished, individual liberty becomes defenseless.

Indeed, democracy is just as capable of being totalitarian as is a dictatorship, only with democracy it seems less clearly unjust, given that this little bit of liberty is still in tact, namely, to take part in the vote. (A little of this has come to be discussed recently on some programs because of Harvard educated Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria’s recent book, The Future of Freedom [W. W. Norton, 2003], which is subtitled “illiberal democracy at home and abroad.” Sadly Zakaria seems to have abandoned his concerns about the matter and is now mostly taking part in discussions about how the country ought to be managed, like a firm.) True enough, democratic totalitarianism appears more benign than a system under the direction of a tyrant but, as In Venezuela, unrestrained democracy can give rise to the most belligerent version of dictatorship since Hitler’s Third Reich. The proper approach to governance is to make all of it focus primarily on protecting the rights of the citizens to their lives, liberty and property. This extension of the idea of the body or security guard is the best model for how government should work and how their work should be appraised. Free men and women require this so as to live their lives by their own judgment and in voluntary cooperation with their fellow citizens instead of being regimented by some group of “leaders” who view themselves as knowledgeable about the public interest.

In caring about democracy mainly or only, the more robust liberty that everyone is entitled to is neglected. The result is not all that different from how feudal orders behave.

Column on America Divided

America Divided

Tibor R. Machan

For all its existence America has been torn between two political positions. Originally the two were represented, mostly, by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, although neither was a simple partisan of the positions at issue here.

Hamilton had been a supporter of the revolution but also quite sympathetic to big government, even to monarchy in the British style (not absolute but relatively limited). Jefferson, in contrast, supported the polity implied by the Declaration of Independence (which he largely authored), although he was no libertarian, not even like Thomas Paine who came quite close.

The two positions differ mainly on how much a country should entrust its ideals to government. The Founders general thought that once the king has been deposed, one could live with government comfortably enough, although Jefferson had uttered some sentiments that suggest he was beginning to find government altogether problematic. “That government is best that governs least” shows no enthusiasm for even limited government, the sort one associates with the classical liberal tradition, although the logical implications of the principles Jefferson included in the Declaration, mostly derived from John Locke, were pretty close to the libertarian minarchist theory, the kind of government that is committed to nothing more than the protection of the citizens’ basic rights to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness and whatever is consistent with these (mostly the right to do anything that’s peaceful). So this faction of America’s political legacy does not so much support a small as a limited scope type government. (Who can tell ahead of time how large an organization devoted to securing our rights would have to be to get its job done!?)

The second position, which one may fruitfully associate with Hamilton, is far more trusting of government, at least of the democratic or representative kind. In any case, this faction of the American political tradition eventually gave rise to the idea that government must be proactive, support various undertakings that the citizens may not take up themselves. So such institutions as banking would be nearly like they had been in Europe, if not state run than at least heavily supervised and regulated by the state. This is the approach that in time gave rise to central banking, the Federal Reserve Bank. It is also the approach that ended up more generally distrusting the capacity of the citizenry to address many of the problems that arise in a society. Education, for instance, would be entrusted to government, as would the protection of wildlife, to mention only two spheres that have become nearly completely a matter of public administration. And it is also this kind of political economic thinking that would in time lead to the invention of positive rights or entitlements, which is certainly not part of the Lockean view or follow the ideas of the Declaration. (BTW, the general welfare does not imply entitlements, only the need to protect all citizens’ rights to pursue their welfare individually or corporately.)

In our own time this divide has turned into something almost fundamental and more destructive, than even the one about preservation of the union. We now see many politicians and nearly the entire intellectual community–media editors, educators at all levels of school and especially in the social sciences and humanities (excepting economists)–siding with the view that government must have a large scope of influence and authority in the country, with only few features left to the private and personal sphere. Having been supplied with political ideas mainly from Europe for the last 150 years, the influence of the classical liberals began to abate a good deal. As in Europe, so in erudite America, most folks believe government must be a supplier of goods and services, not merely the protector of rights. As if they came to believe that referees at a game should become and more more involved in playing it rather than making sure the players obey the rules.

One matter needs to be kept in mind in order to find a silver lining in these developments. This is that the governmental habit which had been cultivated for centuries nearly everywhere, is difficult to break. But not impossible. In time it may just happen and right now there appears to be some hope on the horizon that many Americans are doing exactly that (though not as consistently as they should).