Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Column on Taking Stock at Year's End

Taking Stock of America

Tibor R. Machan

It is a tradition to take stock at yearÂ?s end, so I am going to follow,
seeing it is useful to do this now and then. After a hectic year, with a
very nasty election campaign behind us, with a war that is utterly futile
and yet keeps raging along thousands of miles away, it may serve a purpose
to remind ourselves of what is really so great about AmericaÂ?or at least
its promise.

How can I do this without thinking of my own history which involved
coming to these shores from communist Hungary, after a brief stay in
Germany, way back in the 50s? The contrast back then was stark, at least
when one considers the ideas that defined the two societies.

Communists believed that government needed forcibly to prepare the
population for a revolutionary change, one that would remake human nature
from its individualist phase to a fully mature collectivist emancipation.
They thought the idea of individual liberty is a shallow bit of
self-delusion, one that can serve a mere temporary purpose of boosting the
economic power of a society. After that socialism would take over, with
government managing everything for some vague notion of the general good.
In time communism would arrive, in which everyone automatically work for a
common goal, the supposed public interest.

Such a one-size-fits-all vision is what the few genuine commies cooked
up, while opportunists, who made up the bulk, simply used this phony idea
to get control of society and oppress everyone for their own purposes,
ones that amounted to nothing more noble than those of the Mafia. In
contrast, what was associated with America, even if the reality fell far
short of it, had to do with the truly revolutionary idea that individual
human beings matter mostÂ?not society, not the tribe, not the ethnic group.

This notion, that you, I, they, everyone in fact, matters most, not
collectively but individually, was the main message of the American
Founders when they so enthusiastically affirmed the discovery that every
individual person has unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit
of happiness. Those rights, and what followed from them, would become, in
a just society, legally protected obstacles to all who would attempt to
rule other peopleÂ?s lives. They would, if properly heeded and firmly
secured, serve as the inviolable borders around every human beingÂ?s life
so that it is he or she who governs that life, not others with the sorry
excuse that they are being helpful and mean to do good for those they
undertake to boss about.

There is no other contrast that is more stark in the history of political
thought than that between those who want to rule others, with a myriad of
excuses that at times sound tempting, and those who would unwaveringly
acknowledge everyoneÂ?s fundamental sovereignty. Even when we find some
folks who lack the full capacity to be sovereign, they would gain support
from volunteers, not from political bosses who would invariably abuse the
power over the helpless so as to impose their idea of how everyone ought
to live.

In this American vision of societyÂ?the one most folks identify with this
country as being unique to it (for America also involves lots of bad
habits from the Old World)Â?the legal authorities have one primary job,
namely, to secure our rights. Like referees at a game, they are to stick
only to that job and whatÂ?s needed to do it right, but not venture out on
various missions of power venting.

This idea is the special contribution of America to the history of world
politics, and some of it could even be experienced here and there, used to
actually set people free. Even African Americans, who at first didnÂ?t
benefit much from these notions, eventually found their liberty affirmed
specifically because of what the FounderÂ?s made clear in the Declaration
of Independence: No one is to rule another, not for good or for ill,
without that otherÂ?s consent.

This idea has always been true but for too long tragically suppressed by
the monsters and petty tyrants who loved running roughshod over the rest
of us. And today the idea is once again becoming neglected.

In our recent presidential campaign the idea that people ought to be free
to run their own lives, for better or for worse, however fortunate or
unfortunate they may be, gained hardly any airing. Even President George
W. BushÂ?s invocation of the concept of the Â?ownership societyÂ? amounted to
little more than empty rhetoric.

Such is the sad state of affairs at the end of 2004 and beginning of
2005. Perhaps with a few more thousand outspoken citizens making it
abundantly clear that it is indeed American individualism that requires
vigilant defense, the revolutionary vision of the American founders could
be rekindled. It certainly deserves to be.

Machan teaches business ethics at Chapman University, Orange, CA. He is
research fellow at the Hoover Institution and advises Freedom
Communications, Inc., on libertarian issues. His most recent book is
Objectivity (Ashgate, 2004).

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