Saturday, February 05, 2005

Column on Imperial Government

Imperial Government Foibles

Tibor R. Machan

As the Declaration of Independence points out, all human beings are
created equal and endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness (among others). This idea, it shouldn?t have to be
pointed out but often does, is held to be self-evident for purposes of the
Declaration, although it is clearly not self-evident because much ink
needs to be spilled to establish it. John Locke, for example, wrote a
famous book in 1690, Second Treatise of Civil Government, in which he does
just that and the Founders knew of this work well and good, so they had no
illusion about our rights needing no support. (It is mostly those who
scoff at the idea of basic rights who keep saying that the Founders
thought it was ?self-evident,? ripping the notion out of context so as to
proceed with their disdainful treatment of it.)

Recently some people have been putting forth the view that because every
human being has basic rights, the government of the United States of
America has no special obligation to its citizens but must extend its
services to all alike. Michael Ignatieff ?s book, The lesser Evil:
Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (Penguin, 2004), includes this claim,
which is why the title expresses its author?s frustration with how
terrorism ought to be fought by the American government. (Ignatieff is a
very prominent scholar at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at
Harvard University, mainly working in the discipline of human rights

This position has some credibility, of course. If all persons have the
basic rights the American Founders made note of, that surely means that no
one may have these rights violated, never mind where they life, when they
live, or who they are. They are, as the United Nations Charter makes
clear, universal!

Yet something is amiss in this analysis. Merely because no one may
violate the rights of anyone to life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness, or indeed any other rights derived from these?as the US
Constitution makes clear in the Ninth Amendment?it does not follow that a
country?s government has the same obligations to all persons as it has to
the citizens of that country.

The reason for this is that properly understood a government is
instituted and maintained by the citizenry for the purpose of having the
rights protected for the citizenry, not for others. Consider a similar but
simpler way of seeing the matter. I have the right of self-defense, as you
do and does anyone else. But when I hire a body guard to carry out this
defense?when I delegate the exercise of this right to such a person?there
is no obligation for this person to defend everyone else?s right to life,
liberty, etc.

This is a pretty straightforward notion here, so why do people like
Ignatieff get it wrong? Because they have embraced a notion of rights
entirely alien to that of the American founders, namely, positive rights
or entitlements. Not violating those rights means not only not attacking
people but delivering to them various goods and services.

When you believe government must deliver to people various goods and
services, not simply the protection of individual rights?when the
government?s obligation isn?t constrained by the contract into which it
has entered with the citizenry?then government turns into the Welfare
State. It is seen, now, as a provider to the needy, to all who lack
something important in their lives. In such a picture, why should
governments be limited to protecting the rights of their citizens? After
all, other people around the globe are far more needy than American
citizens, on average, so if this kind of do-goodism is what governments
are all about, there are hundreds of millions around the world who can use
it better than American citizens.

Of course, simple economics comes in here right away, so government will
be limited by that. However, if it has this obligation to redistribute
wealth, then why confine it to ?our citizenry? instead of, say, the people
of Bangladesh or Burundi? No reason.

And while they are at regarding all those citizens as entitled to be fed,
clothed, and medically treated, why not throw in military defense
provisions as well? Out of that thinking grows the idea of the imperial
American government, obligated to protect not only its citizenry but give
welfare and defense to everyone else.

I am convinced that the Founders would find this quite absurd. Just read
the Declaration and check it out for yourself.

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