No Good Old Days
Tibor R. Machan
Sometimes political discussions assume that what America needs is a
return to something in its past, the good old days, where the principles
of the American Founders reigned supreme. Alas, there were no good old
days like that, and in fact, on and off during the last two centuries,
Americans of all stripes showed quite varied degrees of respect for those
From the start there had been much dispute about whether the quite
explicit embrace of classical liberal principles?fundamental, natural
rights, limited government, separation of powers, and so forth?in the
Declaration was what Americans should incorporate into their national and
state constitutions. Benjamin Franklin, for example, had little patience
with the idea that the right to private property is a natural right. As he
put the point,
All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the
individual and the propagation of the species is his natural right, which
none can justly deprive him of: But all property superfluous to such
purposes is the property of the public, who by their laws have created it,
and who may therefore by other laws dispose of it, whenever the welfare of
the public shall demand such disposition. He that does not like civil
society on these terms, let him retire and live among savages.
So, basically, apart from your toothbrush and garments, you do not really
have right to property, only the highly contingent privilege accorded to
you by politicians. Like it used to be with those monarchs who claimed to
be in charge of everything!
Alexander Hamilton was also an explicit supporter of a powerful federal
government and opposed the Bill of Rights (although, he claimed, because
listing some such rights could lead to the rampant violation of others).
And among influential intellectuals, there were many who had little
respect for the founding ideas. For example, Frank J. Goodman?who was the
founding president of the American Political Science Association, a
professor at Columbia University and for 15 years president of Johns
Hopkins University, penned an influential book of ?progressive? ideas,
Politics and Administration (1900, and just reissued by Transaction
Publishers)?considered the principles (most of) the Founders embrace an
impediment to what he took to be a highly desirable big government.
A Hegelian, who held that principles do not last but change with each
historical period, and who also championed energetic government
intervention for all kinds of worthy purposes, Goodman, along with a host
of other academics, mounted a sustained attack on America?s main Lockean
founding principles. As he put the point.
The rights which [an individual] possesses are...conferred upon him, not
by his Creator, but rather by the society to which he belongs. What they
are is to be determined by the legislative authority in view of the needs
of that society. Social expediency, rather than natural right, is thus to
determine the sphere of individual freedom of action.
This is indeed the mainstream academic intellectual?s view of things today
and has been a prominent view all along. It is, of course, quite bizarre,
when you analyze it?how did the legislative authority get to be that
authority, for example, if those who elected them got their rights from
the legislative authority? No starting point for such a process could be
located, so, as we say in such matters, the idea is a nonstarter.
Democracy rests on natural rights?the members of the public have a right
to liberty, which includes the liberty to take part in public and
political affairs. This right, of course, also limits the authority that
can be conferred on the legislature, which is what folks like Goodman and
many of his contemporary compatriots would just as soon forget.
The lesson here is that the struggle for a regime of individual liberty
has never quite gotten off the ground, even in these United States of
America. Sure, there is some hoopla always during the Fourth of July,
suggesting that the Founder?s principles have become the mainstream
understanding of how a human community must be organized. But that
suggestions is highly misleading?sadly most of those celebrating the
Fourth haven?t a clue what it is all about. Few in their schools would
ever have told them, that?s for sure.
It is important to keep in mind that what are the most distinctive and
insightful aspects of the American political tradition have never been
fully embraced, especially by intellectuals who gained enormous influence
in the country. So that famous quip about the price of liberty being
eternal vigilance is vital to keep focusing upon and to follow