It was as if someone was trying to send me a message. It seemed as though every radio talk show, every commentary, each political debate during the past twenty-four hours centered on the issue of individual power vs. collectivism in American society. It is my contention that individual power based on a trust in the “goodness” of man is at the heart of what made the United States great. Secondarily I believe that the difference in that trust in the ultimate intention of the American citizenry is the main issue that divides the Conservative and the Liberal/Progressive movements.
Allow me to explain, but first please understand that for the purpose of this discussion I will be speaking in absolutes. It simply makes it easier to argue. We should all understand that in-between the polar opposites of of which are discussed are thousands of gradients of gray. The two polar opposites of which I speak are of course Liberalism and Conservatism.
The Conservative philosophy is based on a belief in the ultimate goodness of man. That is given the choice between doing “good” and doing “bad.” Conservatives believe that when free enough to make the decision, man will do the right thing. After all man, as the bible says, was created in God’s image. Like God, man will strive to do good, either for the benefit of himself and family and/or for the benefit of the nation itself. Therefore as your beliefs move closer to conservatism along the political spectrum those beliefs will include that lesser government is needed because man can govern himself.
Conservatives focus on the individual and because that individual is born with the inclination to do well, any rights that come with that inherent goodness, come from God who also gave man that inherent goodness. Hence the belief expressed in the Declaration of Independence:
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We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
In conservative thought, government’s only job is to protect those unalienable rights.
Thus when you understand the Declaration of Independence you also understand that the American Revolution was based on conservative principles .
The first government developed after independence, the Articles of Confederation met the objective of limiting the size of the central authority, but the government was so weak that it could not protect those God-given rights, the country was slipping into the tyranny of anarchy. Anarchy is as bad as too much government because there is no way to protect people’s rights, especially the right to own and grow one’s property through commerce, as every state had their own regulations and taxation standards inhibiting interstate business and the central government had no taxation powers to allow it to establish institutions to protect that right to property (like an Army).
Philosopher John Locke felt property was the most important of the natural rights.
Locke established that private property is absolutely essential for liberty: “every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his.” He continues: “The great and chief end therefore, of Mens uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property.”
While Jefferson, in writing the US Declaration of Independence changed the word property to “pursuit of happiness.” In the future President’s mind,”pursuit of happiness” did not mean cruising down the pacific highway in a Mustang Convertible with a Playboy Model in the front seat and Creedence Clearwater blaring from the car stereo. Pursuit of Happiness to Jefferson meant pursuing your potential in life, done through commerce and hard work.
The Republic formed via the Constitution was developed as to be strong enough to protect the individual power of each citizen, while including check and balance to ensure that the new government would not be able to trounce on the individualism established in the nascent American culture. Because they believed in the ultimate goodness of man the founders wanted to ensure that each American was free to “be all that they could be,” but each in their own individual manner guaranteeing the diversity of ideas that would one day make American the economic leader of the world.
Liberal thought, on the other hand believes that man cannot sort things out by himself. It has within it a deep mistrust of human nature. Because man is ultimately a narcissistic being, government is needed to protect one person from the other, so nobody’s right will be trampled on. Inherently small government becomes big government additional tasks must be completed and that diversity of ideas must by nature become more of a collectivist group think, or as Spock’s dying words in Star Trek II indicate The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.
Unlike its American counterpoint, the French Revolution was a liberal one. While the American one guaranteed Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the French Revolution was for Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality and fraternity). The difference is subtle but important as it could also explain some of the differences between conservatives and Liberal/Progressives in today’s US. America’s founders and today’s Conservatives promise that people would have an equal right to pursue and grow their “property” the best way they knew how using their own methods and individual strategy. The French Revolutionists and today’s Liberal/Progressives believe that everyone is guaranteed an equal result to their pursuits as long as it is done in a way that is consistent with the beliefs of the the collective fraternity (brotherhood). Hence in the French Revolution when people had their own individual beliefs, they became suspect and even worse became headless.
Because of the basic mistrust of mankind in the Liberal/Progressive philosophy, they believe that the collective government must step in and guarantee the “equality.” Since any reward stemming from one’s stem f a government-run strategy or collective thought when Liberal/Progressive’s talk equality they point to end result after all the idea is shared so any difference in compensation is gained through an accident of execution. Conservatives, on the other hand have a belief in individualism so they point to an equality of opportunity, therefore it is a person’s individually-owned ideas creating the compensation.
The Liberal/Progressive government must take a collectivist stance. Only the government can fulfill this responsibility because only the government can have see the “big picture,” and understand the needs of the entire population. Thus we had Nancy Pelosi’s statement that only after the health care bill is passed will we able to understand what is in it. She actually saying that until the bill was implemented, the common man cannot understand how the bill addresses the collective good. That general “voter be dammed” attitude of the Progressives in Congress can also be tied to that collectivist stance.
What the collectivist attitude ignores is how individualism and diversity of ideas built this country, and how their disappearance will destroy it.
One of those “articles” discussing this issue I read yesterday was an amazing piece by Mark Steyn called Dependence Day. I have always been a fan of Steyn but this may possibly be his best. In the piece, Steyn relates what he considers Friedrich von Hayek’s greatest insight in The Road to Serfdom which should serve as a warning:
There is one aspect of the change in moral values brought about by the advance of collectivism which at the present time provides special food for thought. It is that the virtues which are held less and less in esteem and which consequently become rarer are precisely those on which the British people justly prided themselves and in which they were generally agreed to excel.
The virtues possessed by Anglo-Saxons in a higher degree than most other people, excepting only a few of the smaller nations, like the Swiss and the Dutch, were independence and self-reliance, individual initiative and local responsibility, the successful reliance on voluntary activity, noninterference with one’s neighbor and tolerance of the different and queer, respect for custom and tradition, and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.
Steyn continues by postulating what it means for the United States
Within little more than half a century, almost every item on the list had been abandoned, from “independence and self-reliance” (some 40 percent of Britons receive state handouts) to “a healthy suspicion of power and authority” —the reflex response now to almost any passing inconvenience is to demand the government “do something.” American exceptionalism would have to be awfully exceptional to suffer a similar expansion of government without a similar descent, in enough of the citizenry, into chronic dependency.
The American “experiment” was and is a unique one. For the first time in the history of man, a government was established not to create and accumulate power for a central authority, but to guarantee that power will be perpetually held by each and every citizen. It is precisely these individual sparks of power that built the swaggering, “I can do anything” mindset that is part of the American dream.
Because we formed a government based on the power of the individual, each and every one of us believe that we as Americans have the power to change the world. That’s what the American dream,exceptionalism and inventiveness comes from. It is not that we are nation populated with people who were born better than everyone else, American exceptionalism is based on the belief that our country is populated with people who had the individual power to strive to be better than everyone else.
Mark Steyn argues as Great Britain increased the size of its government after WWII the once proud Anglo nation declined. He continues by saying that’s exactly what is happening to the United States. As the size and power of government grows, it needs to take the power from the individuals who held it. With the transfer of power comes a change in responsibility. No longer is the government dependent on the people, but he people become dependent on the government. As the “collective” replaces the individual, it will extinguish the individualism that built the American dream created the mind-set that each and every one of our citizens has the power within us to change the world:
Does the fate of the other senior Anglophone power hold broader lessons for the United States? It’s not so hard to picture a paternalist technocrat of the Michael Bloomberg school covering New York in cctv ostensibly for terrorism but also to monitor your transfats. Permanence is the illusion of every age. But you cannot wage a sustained ideological assault on your own civilization without profound consequence. Without serious course correction, we will see the end of the Anglo-American era, and the eclipse of the powers that built the modern world. Even as America’s spendaholic government outspends not only America’s ability to pay for itself but, by some measures, the world’s; even as it follows Britain into the dank pit of transgenerational dependency, a failed education system, and unsustainable entitlements; even as it makes less and less and mortgages its future to its rivals for cheap Chinese trinkets, most Americans assume that simply because they’re American they will be insulated from the consequences. There, too, are lessons from the old country. Cecil Rhodes distilled the assumptions of generations when he said that to be born a British subject was to win first prize in the lottery of life. On the eve of the Great War, in his play Heartbreak House, Bernard Shaw turned the thought around to taunt a British ruling class too smug and self-absorbed to see what was coming. “Do you think,” he wrote, “the laws of God will be suspended in favor of England because you were born in it?”
In our time, to be born a citizen of the United States is to win first prize in the lottery of life, and, as Britons did, too many Americans assume it will always be so. Do you think the laws of God will be suspended in favor of America because you were born in it? Great convulsions lie ahead, and at the end of it we may be in a post-Anglosphere world.