Hail to the Fourth
Tibor R. Machan
One reason I consider the Declaration of Independence such a marvelous document is that it states better than anything else the fundamental principles of a free society.
First, the Declaration makes clear that signers held the truths stated to be self-evident, which is different from considering them to be self-evident. That’s a subtle distinction most people miss, saying falsely that the signers believed the truths were in fact self evident. “Holding” them to be so for purposes of making a declaration and “believing” them to be so is not the same by a long shot.
Second, the signers made it clear that however human beings came to be—whether God or Nature created them—they have certain unalienable rights. And “unalienable” is a crucial term here—no one can lose those rights so long as he or she is a human being. Which means no government creates them and no government can take them, be it a monarchy or democracy or theocracy. If one’s rights are unalienable then one has them, no matter what.
Third, the rights we have are ours not as citizens but as human beings. Our citizenship makes a difference but not as to whether we have those rights but concerning their protection. Governments are instituted so as to secure the rights we have, so citizenship comes with the legal infrastructure that gets those rights secured. Other people have those rights, too, but not being citizens of a country in which they are properly secured makes a big difference—that’s why millions have kept flocking to these shores. Not because they would gain the rights when they get to America but because they were promised proper protection of their rights. (Of course, because the government has from the start gone way beyond its proper powers, becoming not a protector but violator of individual rights, those dreams are now in shambles.)
Fourth, contrary to what too many prominent scholars hold, the rights we have are prohibitions, not entitlements, because they forbid anyone from violating our sovereignty. The government comes in after this fact has been properly acknowledged, as an agency established or instituted to make sure those rights are given proper protection. Government is indeed established in line with these rights—we have the right to our lives, liberties, etc., and the corresponding right to secure them by means of a legal authority that is itself bound by those rights. Our only entitlement is to having our rights secured, nothing more. So, the rights we have are not only to be secured by the legal authorities but those very authorities may never violate those rights. This is very important and not awfully difficult to understand: a police officer, for example, has the job to protect us but that protection must not itself involve attacks upon us. Police officers must perform their job without violating the principles they are hired to defend.
Fifth, there are implications for foreign policy from our having the rights we have by virtue of our human nature. The main one is that no war of aggression can be justified since that would mean the government has lost its proper authority. That authority is confined to securing the rights of American citizens, not to violating anyone else’s. Sure, governments of free societies are duty bound to protect the rights of citizens but they are also duty bound not to violate the rights of anyone else. This follows from the Declaration’s recognition that all human beings have the basic rights it lists.
Sixth, and this is also nearly forgotten, the Declaration makes clear that if a government, like a police officer, systematically breaches the principles by which it is supposed to conduct itself, the citizens may abolish it, too. Indeed, it states they have the duty to do so. That’s like saying if our body guards have become corrupt and instead of protecting us, they are now bossing us around, we not only may but ought to fire them. Governments, like body guards, have limited authority and power and if they fail to act accordingly, they must be shown the door. It may be complicated to do this—and the Declaration acknowledges this too—but nonetheless, that’s what needs to be done.
A Declaration is not a full blow political philosophy. The declaration of the American founders makes clear, however, that individuals have certain basic rights they may hire government to secure for them and that government must keep to its job, period. That implies a free society with strictly limited government.
Too bad it is still only but a sound idea, far from a reality!