Tuesday, July 04, 2006

What's it all about?

Today, on the fourth of July, it behooves us to consider what those who broke away from Great Britain were trying to do. To that end, let us consider the following.

The founders were concerned with and by several things:

1. The abuses of power that occur when governments are not accountable to the people.

2. The abuses of power that occur when any faction – even if it be a majority - gains control of the government.

3. The abuses of power that occur when any branch of the government overreaches its purview.

They believed that all people - independent of their condition - have basic rights which cannot be violated. They also realized that if these rights were to be maintained certain responsibilities had to be met. The founders believed that an educated and ethical populace could rule itself successfully. Indeed, they believed that such an arrangement was the only truly just – and therefore legitimate - method of governance. These were new, untested and 'dangerous' notions to many in the 18th century.

The ideas embodied in the Declaration and Constitution are high ideals. It is the belief in these ideals rather than any geographical location that defines one as an ‘American’.

But belief is not enough. For our system to work, everyone must do their best to live up to the principles outlined in the founding documents. With that said, it is vital that we realize that high ideals are rarely embodied in people or institutions. Nevertheless, to abandon them as unattainable is the gravest sin which a rational human can commit.

Americans and their institutions are not infallible – by any stretch of the imagination. We have failed our ideals at every turn in our history: from allowing slavery into our constitution to using the power of government to conduct ‘witch hunts’ for communists during the 1950s. We fail ourselves and our ideals almost constantly. Nevertheless, it is our constant struggle against our fallible human nature which elevates us. It is the same for society as a whole as it is for any individual member of that society: If you are not trying to improve, you are retreating into the historical failures of the past.

Liberty, as understood by our forebears, was not a state but a process. As such, it is never complete.

When you look around the world today you see ‘advanced’ societies abandoning the ideals which we hold dear. Troublingly, here in the U.S. we too have retreated from many of the ideals we profess to hold dear.

Many people today no longer believe that people should be expected to live up to their responsibility to get along peacefully, so, to minimize the mayhem we must revoke the right to keep and bear arms.

Then, also, there are those who say that people are incapable of responsibly planning for retirement, so the government needs to take their money and do it for them.

On the other hand, some today say that opportunity is insufficient, that a right to pursue happiness is not enough – they say we must guarantee people a certain level of material wealth – that the poor have a right to an income from the government. But in order to enact this right we must necessarily diminish other rights like the right to keep what one earns and the right to pass on to one’s heirs what one has worked a lifetime to achieve.

If you believe that 'others' will handle your responsibilities, you will shortly find that these same others have taken your rights with them.

To retreat from freedom and liberty in order to gain security has never been a safe bet and it isn’t one now. Make no mistake, some of the trade-offs are for the better; but ours was a country that once strove for the best.


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