Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Great Debate over America: Promise Achieved or Promise Broken?

Please subscribe! Looking for free subscriber 9,577
Also remember that the GLORIA Center survives on tax-free donations. Contact us if you can help.

By Barry Rubin

My son made a casual remark that showed me the whole basis of the debate over America today. His teacher had told the class that while in the Declaration of Independence said, “All men are created equal,” but that this promise has not been kept, because of the treatment by America of African-Americans, Native Americans, and others.

Or, let's cut through all the double-talk, the teacher is conveying to these kids that America is both evil and a failure.

Anyone who says such a thing--in either the more polite or nastier versions--does not understand three points of the greatest possible importance. Indeed, comprehending these things marks the difference between, on the one hand, loving America, appreciating its greatness, and being able to make it better or, on the other hand, reviling and destroying it, ruining what may well be the greatest society in human history and a beacon for others to succeed in building their own nations in their own way.

The first point is about the nature of American history. There is a huge difference between saying that the promise hasn't or wasn't kept, and, on the contrary, saying that it took a while to fulfill that promise. In the end and along the way, though, the promise was kept.

Therefore, American history is not a series of shames and disgraces but one of heroic fulfillment. Everything bad is matched by more that has been good. Or, to put it another way, it is not that wrong things weren't done but that they were corrected. Now here's the key: That was possible because of the nature of the promise, the foundation it created, and the system it set up.

And that is the difference between celebrating America and its history—with no need to conceal its (almost always remedied) flaws and failures—or in contrast teaching self-hatred and anti-Americanism. That also means the people of today cannot claim to be great geniuses of morality and wisdom but merely the lucky inheritors of what has been achieved by those who lived before them.

Second, the reason the promise could be kept was that the founders laid a foundation which made that possible. Even if they did not then, in the 1770s and 1780s, openly and consciously possess every belief that made for a fully equal society which did not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender or national origin, they implicitly understood all these things.

They planted the seed. The history of the United States is the story of its growth into a healthy tree--the founders would have called it the tree of liberty--that fulfilled that dream and that plan.

If you have that foundation that includes a belief in human liberty, individual responsibility, the limit of government; division of powers to guard against tyranny or bureaucratic dictates; and basic equality then you can achieve great things. But if you lack that basis, no matter how beautiful the words or lavish the promises made, the result will be ashes and dust.

What could be greater than the promises and pledges to produce utopia of the French, Russian, Chinese, Cuban, and Iranian revolutions? Yet all ended in horror, massive bloodshed, and misery. (It doesn't make one an intellectual to remember their claims but forget their realities.) The Soviet constitution authored by Josef Stalin in the 1930s claimed to offer all good things, to fulfill all human desires, but was a sham because it was not really based on a true belief in individual liberty and equality. Equally, to extol the state or a class, or some all-embracing ideology over individual liberty is, inevitably, to engender tyranny.

And this leads to the third point, the system itself and its boundaries ensured the promise would be kept over the decades and centuries. If rights come from the Supreme Being—and if one doesn’t believe in a deity let's say nature—then they cannot be taken away by any earthly power. If they belong to the individual, they cannot be taken away by any collective group, except with a really compelling motive. And even that motive is based on the protection of the individual rights of others.

There is also one other aspect of this last point. This is a system that gives opportunity, not guaranteed results, a level playing field, not a trophy for everyone. Without this approach, the system could not succeed because to guarantee results one must impose them, decisively limiting the rights of some to ensure nobody got too far ahead or behind.

How forgotten—or should one say, deliberately concealed!—is this third point today. The founders and the system began by promising to make the rules fair. And for the times when it would be discovered that the rules were not fair, the system was designed so as to be capable of adjustment in order the better to achieve that original goal.

The fact that there are people who are richer or poorer, happier or less happy, who make good or bad decisions is not a failure of the promise but an inevitable outcome of this world. Individuals get to define--within very broad limits--what life, liberty, and the persuit of happiness means for them. It is not for the state to do it in their stead.

This includes their right to engage in certain behaviors--eating fatty foods, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, saying mean things about other individuals or groups--that others see as wrong. But they are not allowed to impose their will on you and you are not allowed to impose your will on them, again except for reasonable and limited ways.

If a chemical is dangerous to public health it can be banned, for example, but not what individual adults do to themselves. If someone says things of which you don't approve, you can engage in free speech to try to convince them to act otherwise. You don't toss them into prison.

Trying to “fix” this system of basic rights combined with individual decision in order to achieve some kind of statistical equality or social engineering concept of "social justice" makes—as history has shown but as many still fail to realize—things much worse. Because if you can order around someone else today, they can do it to you tomorrow. And inevitably, the kind of people who seek and obtain power usually are the same kind of people who like using it to control others.

Some people call this kind of thinking conservatism or libertarianism but historically it has most often been called liberalism. Most Americans think of it as being moderate. Whatever you call it, one thing is clear: it's not the kind of philosophy that people on the far left or far right like, whatever they call themselves.
In fact, let’s read the context which makes all of the above admirably clear:

“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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

In Europe, the Government existed before the People; in America, it was the other way around. This is the essential spirit of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It is explained in what is perhaps the most brilliant book ever written on governing, The Federalist Papers.

Notice that the Declaration of Independence does not say "consent of the majority" but rather says "consent of the governed." That's no accident. It means that what even a majority can impose on everyone is limited.

The purpose of government is not to tell people what to do but to do what the "consent of the governed" permits. To prevent monopolies, prevent discrimination, ensure that food and drugs are safe, regulate banks, collect taxes, provide a social safety net, and many other things fall within this framework. Yet this is always within the context of limiting the sphere of government and protecting the sphere of liberty. Each such step must meet a demonstrably compelling need and be accepted with a strong popular consensus, the "consent of the governed."

Suppose those in government claim they know better? The founders were well-acquainted with that argument, which was as familiar in the eighteenth century as it is today. But their view was that since power could not be trusted in the hands of mortal men--who would inevitably use it for their own self-interest, to bend others to their own personal preferences or both--it must be limited. Otherwise, where is one's control over one's own "life" and where is "liberty"?

Equally, they saw the purpose of government as not being to create the "perfect society" (since people will always disagree on what that is and define their own "pursuit of happiness"), not to hand people everything that (according to those in power, at least) they “need,” but to ensure their right to be secure in their persons and property, their right to define their own individual behavior and dream. Collectively, that’s called the American Dream.

Nothing is perfect by any means. But the promise has definitely been kept.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.