The sun is setting in America

Published 4:10 pm Friday, July 6, 2012

Yesterday, we celebrated the 236th birthday of the Declaration of Independence, which was written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776. While celebrating our founding, we should consider why the Declaration still matters.

The Declaration is viewed by many experts as a straightforward defense of liberty against tyranny, but there’s a lot more to take away from the Declaration upon a careful reading. The Declaration is one of the great documents in political theory. It has profound implications for how individuals live in relation to government day-to-day, and its words were meant to speak to the universal, absolute freedoms humans have a right to enjoy.

As our Founders knew, when the basic “inalienable” rights described in the Declaration are threatened, people suffer. Rights seldom disappear all at once; they get eroded gradually, and the deepest infringements come during times of crisis and economic uncertainty. Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said in 2008, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Emanuel’s words during our financial crisis sum up the political mindset of politicians then and now: individuals will compromise liberty for a temporary feeling of comfort, and that means greater power for the government.

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Thomas Jefferson warned of the tendency of all governments to “depart from principle” again and again until the bulk of society is reduced to “mere automatons of misery.” When liberty is lost, we are all worse off as a result, and it’s our own fault for letting it happen. The Declaration tells us what can be done when the balance between liberty and intervention swings too far away from liberty: people have a right to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them” because the laws of nature—our rights to our own bodies, earnings, and property—are supreme.

Rights are foundational to free, prosperous societies; they protect us from arbitrary interventions, and they promote economic growth. Without them, entrepreneurs have little incentive to innovate, and society would be brutish, and impoverished. Since we declared independence back in 1776, the US economy has enjoyed a remarkable run of sustained economic growth. Growth has slowed in recent years, but the US is still one of the freest, most prosperous countries in the world, and much of our success has to do with the safeguards first laid out in the Declaration and then cemented by our Constitution. Other countries don’t have the same respect for individual rights and property, and, as a result, they struggle to attract capital.

As my columns in recent weeks have noted, though, the US is slipping. Our federal, state, and local leaders have chosen pragmatism, populism, and quick fixes over liberty and the long-term good. Quite often, they have heeded Rahm Emanuel’s advice by turning crises into opportunities. In so doing, they have pushed us down the path of misery when, in fact, a quick U-turn towards the road to freedom is what we needed.

The Founders worried about such opportunists. They sought to tie liberty and the rule of law together in a bond to protect us from governmental overreach and arbitrary rules. They wanted to make us all better in the long-run and promised each person a significant amount of control over his or her life. They pondered the following dilemma: Who can plan a person’s life better—a king 3,000 miles away or the individual? The Declaration of Independence offered the king their crystal-clear answer.

We face a similar dilemma today: Can we manage our own problems, free from interference and entitlements? Or, are problems so big that they must be turned over to a group of people in Washington, DC? Deep down, I think Americans know the answer. The Declaration provides us with a framework to think about how we’re living today in relationship to government. As we celebrate our country’s 236th birthday, do we have the will to assert ourselves as individuals and renew our commitment to America’s founding principles?

Scott Beaulier is Executive Director of the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.