Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A revolutionary Struggle

Tibor R. Machan

Be it welcome or not, there are a revolutionary struggle afoot in the world. It started when certain thinkers began to dispute the claims made by defenders of various rulers--monarchs, dictators, tsars and the like--that some people have a divine or natural right to run the lives of other people. In modern philosophy it was John Locke who mounted the most sustained and influential challenge to this statist idea. His insights and arguments made a big impression on the likes of America's founders--the Declaration of Independence is filled with points most fully developed to that date by Locke.

Just think--for centuries on end it was the common notion that certain folks are superior to others, not because of their achievements or skills but by blood or even just their names. Just as we accept that parents have authority over children--at least parents who carry out their role properly--in much of human history it was widely advocated and believed that government or the state had full or at least a great deal of authority to manage the lives of people within the realm they supposedly cared for. Nearly everything that happened in society had to be a project of the state--commerce, science, religion, the arts, education and so forth.

There are a great many people, even in countries like the USA, who still embrace and even vigorously defend this position. For them the government owns the country, practically, and distributes and redistributes some of the wealth to citizens for limited private use. Fierce taxation is defended by prominent legal scholars at America's most prestigious educational institutions, on the grounds that government actually owns the wealth and taxes are merely a way of recapturing it from the people who produce but do not own it. Whenever something goes amiss in society, such people and those who give elaborate intellectual support to them insist on turning to government for help, accepting it as the ruler of the realm. These people always ask for government regulation, which assumes that governments are, as kings had been thought to be, superior in wisdom and virtue to the citizens. The very idea of a citizen is revolutionary--elsewhere "subject" is used more regularly to identify the people who live within the realm that's being governed by a select few of them.

This whole notion that governments--people who worked at centers of power--are superior to us all is what the American Revolution was challenging--it had begun to be challenged before but America's input was immense and made the biggest difference. It was not, however, to last very long and the revolution is in retreat now, not so much intellectually but as a choice of the bulk of the citizenry. After all, the thrust of the revolution is that citizens need to govern themselves, need to take on the responsibility that others pretended to possess over them. That's a scary idea to millions!

Both ideas, statism and individualism, are still very much topics of discussion and argument but judging by which of them has more support at famous academic institutions such as Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, and other prominent universities, statism is reasserting itself.

Of course there is also the counter movement which shows itself in world wide commerce and more or less liberal democratic developments, which are clearly signs of advances in human freedom. The revolutionary vision of the American Founders is, in fact, more eagerly embraced abroad these days than in the USA, with some exceptions, such as gay and women's rights, the expansion of first amendment ideas, etc. (As someone who does a lot of lecturing around the world I can testify from my own experiences that a great many people in, say, former Soviet colonies are enthusiastic about human liberty and not so much about the power of the state.)

Revolutions have some pivotal periods but they move slower than their supporters would want. This is also true with the American revolution and its central ideas. Nonetheless, the revolution is under way. How it will fare is quite indeterminate.