Jefferson may or may not have coined the aphorism: “That government is best which governs least”, but that was the perspective that motivated him and the other founders of our nation, as well as the leading intellectuals of the early years of the republic. Thoreau’s great essay Civil Disobedience begins with an explicit endorsement of the sentiment.
The founders had asserted in the preamble to the (quite literally) revolutionary Declaration of Independence that our individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were unalienable because granted by our Creator. Normal citizens acting as a whole were seen as sovereign – a direct challenge to the then-prevailing view that the sovereign was a prince or king, and that the people’s duty was to serve him. A king would speak of “my country” or “my army” in distinctly personal terms (as President Obama so disconcertingly has a habit of doing); Americans preferred the pronoun “our”, and it made all the difference.
In a very real sense, it was the idea of sovereignty residing in the people – with individual liberties as rights granted unalienably by God, as opposed to revocably by the state – that built this country and gave it its identity. Most of our forebears came here voluntarily, forsaking their former, ethnically or militarily -determined identities, to assume a new nationality that would literally ennoble them. Our common identity became that of freedom-loving Americans. We coalesced around a new, post-ethnic (or, better, non-ethnic) ideal.
Are we still free? In the sense of being an independent nation, yes. In the sense of choosing our own leaders and setting our own political course, also yes. But in the individual sense, ever less so. Our government plays an ever larger role in determining what we may eat or drink, how our medical care will be handled, what will happen to our savings and even how our children will be raised. It taxes or regulates virtually every imaginable activity, right down to the level of forbidding the sale of cupcakes at school fundraisers.
I’m pretty sure that the founders would have seen our present government as tyrannical. They also might even have wondered why they went to the trouble of rebelling, since We the People have recently chosen to govern ourselves in a far more heavily taxed and personally intrusive manner than King George would have ever dreamed of doing.
Perhaps more to the point (since we are hardly encouraged to worry about what a bunch of Dead White Men might have thought about anything), we should ask ourselves what it now means to be an American. What is the unifying ideal? Is it just that we are rich and powerful and here by accidents of fate? Somehow that vision doesn’t seem terribly inspiring. Is it only that our government is democratically elected? Lots of governments now are – including many that rule nations that are the modern incarnations of ancient tribes or conquered empires.
Many among us have lost sight of both the ideals of individual freedom that were the spark for our revolution and the fact that it was precisely those ideals that allowed the new American people to build the wealthiest and most scientifically advanced nation that the world has ever seen. Once each citizen saw him or herself as free, he or she could figure out how to maximize his or her potential in ways that could never happen in more tightly controlled societies.
Native intelligence is widely dispersed among people: there are smart people all over. Each of us may or may not have been endowed with unalienable rights by a Creator (people seem to give up such rights, voluntarily or otherwise, with depressing regularity), but almost all of us can and do react rationally to our circumstances.
If you agree that intelligence is widely dispersed, you see that whether or not decision-making rights come from God, people should generally be allowed to make decisions for themselves. People know more about their circumstances than their putative masters ever can – that’s the conceptual flaw with progressive governance, which is all about concentrating decision-making in the hands of an elite. Everybody will work a system to his or her benefit. The old Soviet-era joke “In Soviet Russia we have fair deal: they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work” reflects the mentality of unfree people reacting to their circumstances. Centralized governance is ultimately self-defeating.
The biggest question determining the success of a given society is: does the system encourage individual behaviors that are good for society as a whole? Freedom does. Statism does not.
When we had few or no entitlements Americans were famously thrifty; now we are appallingly profligate. When we had lower taxes and lighter regulations, we were famous for our work ethic; now we have an army of the unemployed, many of whom are demotivated from working by benefits they would lose by working, just as employers are discouraged from employing them by the heavy, indirect employment costs that they would bear. Unemployment is the product of a bloated state.
Think of it this way: at one time, computer engineers thought that computing was best done by ever-bigger supercomputers solving problems through one program, and IBM’s Big Blue was the ideal, but the passage of time has shown that many smaller, individually programmed computers do most jobs far better: cloud computing beats supercomputing at most tasks. Or this way: your finger tip knows to pull back from being burned long before your brain issues the command for it to do so. Your finger is the sensible person, your brain the would-be regulator. Or this: the larger the human organization, the less efficient it is at accomplishing most tasks: compare the US Postal Service with FedEx, or email. Dispersed intelligence, and decision-making is better at nearly everything. (The exception that proves the rule: warfare. States are very good at killing – which is the reason that I am a very pro-defense libertarian; I fear other states’ prowess in that regard, so I want our country to be as strong as is needed to defend our liberties).
The ideals of our founders fostered the creation of the world’s most exceptional nation. We are exceptional for our present wealth and power, yes; but by far the more important way in which we are exceptional is that ours is a nation united by an ideal rather than by ethnicity, a religion or conquest. And, indeed, that ideal is the true source of our wealth and power, so we forget it at our extreme peril, and at our great cost.