Friday, February 09, 2007

Unauthorized Government is Wrong

Tibor R. Machan

What was most horrible about the bulk of political history is that some people ruled others, often to the point of using them entirely against their will, even sending thousands and thousands of them to their death or using their lives for purposes they had no part in choosing. The big deal about the American revolution was the idea that one owns one’s life—the Lockean idea of the unalienable right to one’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. This was so radical a notion—although here and there expressed by earlier thinkers but never really given official endorsement—that even now most folks just don’t get it. No one owns you—not your country, not your family, not your neighborhood, not your community, no one. You are the one who owns your life and properly gets to say what will be done with it. To reiterate what Lincoln so aptly said about this, “No one is good enough to govern another without that other’s consent.” And in some respects everyone has an inkling of this idea—it is entirely unacceptable for a doctor to operate without the patient’s consent, for an auto mechanic to work on your car without your giving permission, and so forth. Plain as anything can be!

Yet we are still in grips of public policies that directly contradict this idea and hark back to a time when government treated people as its resource, as its possession, as if only the ruling head and elites had the authority to set agendas with the rest of us having to tow the line. Day in and day out politicians and bureaucrats manage to make laws—in fact, the term law is all too honorific for most of their petty rules—by which the rest who have not consented must live their lives lest they be subject to fines or incarceration.

This distinctively American political idea has often been criticized—and today it is mostly denigrated by communitarians like Charles Taylor and Robert N. Bellah—for an alleged failure to stress the importance of community in human affairs, a lament that's entirely misguided. The founders had no prejudice against community, our social nature. What they did insist upon, however, is that human community life needs to be voluntary, un-coerced. They had a clear notion that unless a community is founded on the principle of voluntarism—unless each member of that community has his or her unalienable rights respected and protected—the result is not a genuine, bona fide human community but something akin to a bee hive or an ant colony. But because human beings are self-directed, because they have the freedom of the will to give meaning and direction to their lives—and only when they do so does it achieve full meaning—they realized that it is a condition of a human community that coercion is excluded from it. In other words—using the parlance of contemporary public policy—the public (human) good cannot involve the violation of basic rights. Those rights in fact serve to define what is the public good, namely, a society in which those basic rights are protected and promoted. That is what is meant by what the Declaration states, namely, that the just powers of government are derived from consent and such just powers have as their purpose to secure our basic rights.

None of this is against community but in favor of a community of free men and women. A community that rejects these criteria fails to be properly human, fit for proper human living.

But, because the propagation of the idea that some get to rule others is so entrenched, having for millennia served to rationalized the more or less arbitrary rule of some by others, even in America, let alone the rest of the world, it is still thought odd that one would oppose oppressive governments, including those which deploy the democratic method in achieving their oppression. Democracy that oppresses is no less oppressive than out and out dictatorship. It merely disperses the process of oppression so that it is somewhat disguised.

Those who appreciate the full impact of the words of the Declaration are few—even America’s founders only went a certain distance to fully realize them. Still, it is just the thing to realize if one is serious about aiming for establishing and maintaining a just human community.

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