Thursday, December 09, 2010

Core philosophies shape our paths

I enjoy getting a 'founders quote daily' in my email inbox from The Patriot Post every morning. More often than not, it makes me stop and think about what the wise men who bequeathed to us this great nation were thinking.

Today's quote made me stop to think about a core difference between those who value freedom above government and those who value government above freedom.

"As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us, faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another." ~ James Madison, Federalist No. 55, 1788

This is a core philosophical perspective and, depending on where you stand, will lead to completely opposite decisions.

If you believe that man will care for his neighbor in times of trouble, you don't seek to have a government program to do just that. If you believe that man is capable of making good decisions, you don't seek to make them for him. If you believe man will do what is right, you don't seek to mandate that of him.

Now, obviously, I'm talking about generalities for we are all human and certainly aren't perfect - and we know there are bad apples in every bunch. But we also know that making mistakes allows us to learn lessons that prevent similar mistakes in the future - thus we develop the skills and knowledge to survive better. And Madison acknowledged such when he explains that our republic presupposes the better qualities exist at a higher degree than other forms of governance - not that the worst of qualities don't exist at all.

Those who don't believe in such things - or who believe the worst of man outweighs the good - will seek a larger role for the government to, as Madison explains, 'restrain' us from devouring each other. But this is a fundamental difference in what is thought to be the role of government.

Our founders believed they were instituting a government to protect our individual liberties. That means a government would have the authority to establish laws dealing with the infringement upon those liberties, imposing penalties for such infringements - laws against theft, harm, etc. At the core of their thought was the individual's inherent (not given by government) right to life, liberty and the pursuit (not the attainment) of happiness.

They didn't establish a government to protect us from all harm because such protection is impossible, especially when done by our own hand. They didn't establish a government to do for us what we should do for ourselves and each other - only to do the things we could not do individually - like protect the nation from invasion by others.

Contrary to the perspective some would have you believe, our founders (and those who support their positions today) are not anti-government as they - and we - believe there is a proper role for the government. But determining that proper role depends upon your view as Madison describes it: one of trust in one's fellow man or one where you believe a government of despotism is the only thing that can give us a 'proper' society.

This goes right along with Benjamin Franklin's quote: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Too many Americans today believe that their own security, temporary as it is, is something to be traded for their individual liberty - and it's not just with the Transportation Security Agency.

Some today are willing to give up economic liberty for the promise of future care. That's what Social Security is - every person mandated to pay to the government an amount that is, in most upcoming cases, not going to result in being paid back out to us in the future - or, if it is, paid out at less than what we could have accumulated for ourselves individually.

Many gladly give up their medical liberty for the promise of 'all bills being paid' by the government. Of course, that also means that government gets to make the decisions about what costs you can incur, requiring you to cede your freedom to make such decisions to the bureaucrats hundreds of miles away.

The list goes on: intellectual freedom, educational freedom, freedom to make mistakes...all among the growing numbers of liberties too many are trading for not even a temporary safety, but just an often empty promise of safety.

And it all goes back to what you believe, as typified by Madison's quote.

I cannot help but wonder where men like are founders are today. If we had to establish a new country, would we have the wisdom and fortitude to create one as successful as what we have? Or are we too far gone down the road to despotism?

1 comment:

Tim Higgins said...


There was one thing that you correctly pointed out, but did not take to its logical conclusion. People do make mistakes and they do in fact 'sometimes' learn from them. For some reason however, governments (which are equally prone to mistakes) never learn from them.

The answer to bad laws or regulations, in some demented form of adding insult to injury or two wrongs make a right, is always more laws and regulations. The only thing that we seem to be able to count on when government gets into the mix is that some special interest will be served and the law of unintended consequences will soon rear its ugly head.

Despotism, as you correctly conclude, is as much a result of apathy as it is of evil intent.

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