Monday, November 10, 2008

The End of Exceptionalism

Tibor R. Machan

America has been thought of as an exceptional country because of its basic political principles. In particular, the recognition of individual rights, the sovereignty of the citizens instead of some king or even democratic assembly, rendered the country extraordinary as far as the nature of human community life is concerned. Although there have always been some who tried to point out that statism is a farce, that government is not what's important in human communities but the individuals who make them up, this idea gained explicit official recognition (in law, in public policy) only with the emergence of the United States of America. The Declaration of Independence, specifically, laid out ideals of human community life that were entirely exceptional, unique, compared to what has prevailed throughout history and dominates the world even now.

But none of this implies that what made America exceptional was the sole feature of this country's system of laws and public policies. America has always been a mixed system. It barely escaped become a monarchy--George Washington had been offered the throne but refused it! Alexander Hamilton much preferred the centralized government of Great Britain to the loose federation that had been the original USA. There was a huge debate about whether the country should have a traditional government-managed central bank and the supporters eventually won.

In short, many, many aspects of the United States of America did not conform to what made it exceptional, namely, its substantially free system. The capitalism so often described as America's political economy was never complete or pure, not be a long shot. Everything from blue laws in thousands of local communities to eventually massive taxation throughout the country undercut the capitalist elements. And later came all the government regulations, based on a (deliberate?) misreading of the U. S. Constitution's "interstate commerce clause." ("To regulate" was supposed to mean "to regularize" not "to regiment.")

None of this should be surprising. After all, for centuries on end throughout the world the dominant form of human community life has been and still is some variety of statism, a top down rule by some people of the rest. In most of history the rule has been brutal, unlimited, and only in some spots and after a while did it become popular to limit governments as the Magna Carta proposed. The notion that government should confine itself to "securing [our] rights" was indeed exceptional and still is. Opposite ideas, however, were quite popular, also, and still are, including with most of the intellectuals and scholars in the field of political theory. (One need but consider that in a supposedly free country education from the primary to the higher levels is mostly administered by governments. That is directly opposed to the notion that government should be limited in its scope to securing our rights!)

One reason all this needs to be considered is that too many people are aghast that Barack Obama is leaning very strongly in the direction of a socialist type government. That would be one wherein the wealth is deemed to belong to society, people themselves belonging to the state, and governments distributing and redistributing much of the country's wealth. There are numerous prominent law professors, for example, at prestigious universities who write books devoted to arguing that private property rights are a myth. (Just consider Professors Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, very prominently published book, The Myth of Ownership [Oxford University Press, 2002].) So the idea of socialism is by no means extraordinary in this society despite its going against its basic, original political philosophy. Senator Obama is, in fact, much closer in his outlook to what millions of college students are taught day in and out than to what made the country exceptional by way of what's contained in its declaration and constitution.

Unfortunately all of this is not much discussed in America's high schools and colleges. So when it comes to light in the popular media, it takes most people by surprise. It is time, though, that they realize it all and maybe do something about it next time they get the chance.

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