Monday, July 4, 2016

Independence Day celebrates individual rights

Today is Independence Day, the day on which Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies in America from Great Britain. One thing that is often forgotten is that the American Revolution was a rebellion of Englishmen against their government. They were a remarkable group those revolutionaries, risking their lives by committing treason against the Crown. They were intellectuals like Thomas Jefferson, polymaths like Benjamin Franklin and pragmatists like James Madison. Some, like John Adams, came reluctantly to the cause, while others like George Washington were enthusiastic revolutionaries. What they had in common was a belief that
individuals that are sovereign and that moral governments can only rule with the consent of the governed.

Those brave founders signed a declaration that enunciated a philosophy that was radical for the times. It wasn't completely original - other Englishmen like John Locke and Thomas Paine (who went to America to join the revolution) had already expressed similar sentiments - but it went against the the predominant philosophy that had endured since Aristotle and Socrates - that individuals are sacrificial lambs to the greater good. They turned this prevailing wisdom on its head and said that human beings have inherent rights including the right to pursue their own interests (described in the Declaration as 'the pursuit of happiness') and that these rights cannot be subordinated to anyone's view of the collective good.

The Declaration also stated that governments exist only to protect the rights of individuals. This is, in my view, perhaps the most under-appreciated principle contained in that powerful document. It means there cannot be conflict between the actions of a moral government and the rights of the individual. How can that be true, you ask? Surely part of the role of government is to arbitrate between the conflicting rights of its citizens?

The answer to this dilemma is that there is no conflict between the objectively-determined rights of individuals. Conflict arises because of subjective claims that are not genuine rights (such as 'the right to a job'). The rights that the Declaration refers to are by definition universal and they impose no obligation on anyone other than to respect the same rights in everyone else. There is no conflict between a government that regards its role as solely to protect rights by this definition and the rights of the individual because they are one and the same thing*. This suggests that many, if not most, of the actions of the United States Government today are immoral and inconsistent with the Declaration (and the US is certainly not unique in this regard).

There are many who claim that the Declaration and the US Constitution are anachronistic. I think, on the contrary, both documents were incredibly farsighted. It is not these documents that are the problem today but successive governments abrogation of them.

* I have expanded on this subject before here.

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