Thursday, November 29, 2007

Betrayed via Entitlements

Tibor R. Machan

As people think about public affairs they deploy a variety of criteria by which to evaluate them. Some want to know if a law or policy increases happiness in society; some care about whether it pleases God; some are concerned about whether the policy meets standards of justice.

In the United States of America the official criteria for whether some proposed law or policy passes muster is whether it is constitutional. But that is not the end of it because constitutions can be flawed, as the American one was and arguably continues to be under the influence of highly opinionated Supreme Courts. In the back of the Constitution stands the philosophy sketched in the Declaration of Independence. This is America’s original revolutionary statement of what constitutes of just country. And as anyone can check, there is no mention of increasing happiness or pleasing God. What matters most to the drafters of the Declaration, in line with what they have learned from their study of history and some of the great political thinkers, is whether a country’s laws and public policies fully accord with the principles of individual human rights.

Foremost among these principles is the one about how every human being has unalienable and natural rights to, among others, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is what make a country just, not how wealthy it is, how equally its resources are shared, how culturally refined it is, how religious are its citizens, how athletic they are or any similar incidental matter. The criteria for political justice, for what makes a country a good one, is whether these basic rights are respected and protected.

Because the American Founders’ ideas and ideals were extremely controversial and unusual, compared to the history of such ideas around the globe, it has been very difficult to get full compliance to the principles of the Declaration. The old governmental habit, of which the Declaration aims to disabuse us all, has strong staying power. People do not easily get used to individual responsibility and, therefore, to respecting individual rights.

Not long after the country got on its way, numerous compromises began to be made with its principles. It was the philosophy of populism or progressivism, especially, that came to corrupt America most. (A wonderful book about this is Richard Epstein’s How the Progressives Rewrote the Constitution [2006].)

This movement, which is still in full force, is best understood as an effort to resurrect the monarchical form of government whereby it is the government that runs everything, owns everything, determines everyone’s primary goals in life, etc., with support for some politically active majority. It is reactionary through and through by virtue of its aim to eradicate individual rights and substitute for those revolutionary principles the nearly absolute rule of the state.

Of course the excuse for taking this path is always some vulnerable group--children, poor, minorities, indigents, disabled, casualties of natural disasters, and so forth. The tactic is to invent a set of entitlements, often also called “rights” (mainly to make them all palatable within the American context of individual rights but completely reversing it at the same time). Whereas the American Founders’ ideas was that each individual has the right to live, act and pursue goals free of other people’s interference--all we need to do is abstain from intruding upon one another and cooperate voluntarily in all our mutual endeavors--the progressives (actually, if truth be told, better called “regressives” claimed that people have a right to be served by others and these others may be subjected to involuntary servitude if the government so decides. The idea that government should protect our freedom was, thus, transformed to mean that government must compel everyone to serve everyone else.

The ultimate result, even in a democracy, is that some people get elevated to rule the rest by decided who needs to provide what service, when, how much of it, and so forth. And that is where we now stand, with but a few voices in the country raising objections to it all. The American revolution has been voided and the king now rules again.

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