Rediscovering and recovering lost and endangered American liberties by studying our Founders' ideas, contemporaries, and etymology – because our united States "…are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States…"
At one time, Americans cherished their precious birthrights of Federalism, self-rule, private property, and self-determination. Over the years, however, we have grown to gradually accept the tyrannical notion that the Federal Government has ultimate authority to do anything that appears to be in the best interests of its citizenry. Besides the fact that this doctrine goes completely against the text of the Constitution and the intent of the Founders and state ratifiers, there is another obvious, historically-proven reason to avoid such an omnipotent government structure – and that is that many, many atrocities have been committed by powerful, central governments around the world under the pretense of promoting “the common good.” Ayn Rand, the stoic defender of Objectivism and Capitalism, gives poignant examples of this in her essay The Only Path to Tomorrow in 1944 (emphasis added):
Throughout history, no tyrant ever rose to power except on the claim of representing “the common good.” Napoleon “served the common good” of France. Hitler is “serving the common good” of Germany. Horrors which no man would dare consider for his own selfish sake are perpetrated with a clear conscience by “altruists” who justify themselves by-the common good.1
The Founding Fathers, however, put a premium on liberties that would benefit the individual – not just some homogeneous, collective non-entity – by attempting to ensure minimal intervention by the central government, and left the lion’s share of legislation to local governing bodies instead.
After enduring oppression from a powerful, remote, central government, newly independent Americans were sensitive to any infringement on their natural right to carve out a life in any way they saw fit. Colonial themes like “don’t tread on me” and “liberty or death“ conveyed a desire to be left alone to pursue individual happiness. A great importance was placed on the right to possess and defend one’s own land and belongings. In 1772, Samuel Adams enumerated what he saw as the basic individual liberties the Colonists had fought for in the collection of quotes below (emphasis added):
Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can.2
…the grand end of civil government, from the very nature of its institution, is for the support, protection, and defence of those very rights; the principal of which, as is before observed, are Life, Liberty, and Property.2
The supreme power cannot justly take from any man any part of his property, without his consent in person or by his representative. … Now what liberty can there be where property is taken away without consent?2
This emphasis on the individual’s natural right to own and defend private property indicates an important end goal of the new American Government – protecting the rights of the individual.
Ayn Rand draws a distinction between individual interests and the elusive “common good” in her 1966 book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, arguing that the only real entity in a society is the individual (emphasis added):
Every social system is based, explicitly or implicitly, on some theory of ethics. The tribal notion of “the common good” has served as the moral justification of most social systems — and of all tyrannies — in history. The degree of a society’s enslavement or freedom corresponded to the degree to which that tribal slogan was invoked or ignored.
“The common good” (or “the public interest”) is an undefined and undefinable concept: there is no such entity as “the tribe” or “the public”; the tribe (or the public or society) is only a number of individual men. Nothing can be good for the tribe as such; “good” and “value” pertain only to a living organism — to an individual living organism — not to a disembodied aggregate of relationships.3
In the previously cited The Only Path to Tomorrow, she warned that pandering to an intangible “common good” can be detrimental to the individual(emphasis added):
Totalitarianism is collectivism. Collectivism means the subjugation of the individual to a group — whether to a race, class or state does not matter. Collectivism holds that man must be chained to collective action and collective thought for the sake of what is called “the common good.” 1
In contrast to both Rand and the Founders, dictators and socialists tend to promote the value of the collective above the individual. The Wikipedia page for Glossary of Nazi Germany lists the following (emphasis added):
Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz – “The common good before the private good”; Rudolf Jung popularized it in his book Der Nationale Sozialismus, 1922, 2nd edition. This became Hitler’s basic stance on the subordination of the economy to the national interest.4
Obviously, Hitler’s “common good” didn’t include the good of Jews, blacks, Gypsies, the disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or homosexuals.
Of course, the Founders also saw the obvious benefits a limited, central governing body could bring to a society – the protection of the people’s natural, individual freedoms being top on the list. John Adams actually used the phrase “common good” in his 1851 work Thoughts on Government, Defence of the Constitution:
Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men; therefore, the people alone have an incontestable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to institute government; and to reform, alter, or totally change the same, when their protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness require it.5
At first blush, Adams’ quote seems almost opposite of Rand’s above – but upon closer scrutiny, we see that his main point is that it is not acceptable for a government to serve ONLY the interests of one or a few individuals, or those of just one class of people – and that when a government ceases to be beneficial to all the people, it’s time to “totally change it.” He also does not imply that the concerns of the individual are subservient to those of the society in which they exist. I believe Adams held individual interests at a level of at least equal importance to those of society’s. His concern for individual rights (and not the rights of a shapeless collective) is confirmed in the full text of the following quote portions of his A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (emphasis added):
…Property is surely a right of mankind as really as liberty….the moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If “Thou shalt not covet,” and “Thou shalt not steal,” were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society, before it can be civilized or made free.6
In a hypothetical scenario (in the full text of his Defence), Adams imagines a society of ten million, of which only two million own land and other possessions. Without the legal protection of private property, he argues, the majority would eventually vote to divide all properties equally among everyone. This would be an endless nightmare, Adams envisions, as “the idle, the vicious, the intemperate, would rush into the utmost extravagance of debauchery, sell and spend all their share, and then demand a new division of those who purchased from them.”6
John Adams clearly placed a high importance on the individual’s right to, and protection of, private property.
Our Founding Fathers highly valued individual liberties. They designed a central government they thought would allow each citizen as much freedom as possible to pursue their own destiny as they saw fit – and expected each state and local community to largely govern itself, since local governing bodies generally have a more accurate and intimate understanding of the region’s specific needs.
They recognized that the right to one’s own property is a sacred, fundamental one, and is inseparably tied to other basic natural rights.
Thomas Jefferson said it best when he declared that in a government of the people, the right to property is as essential as the right to personal liberty itself:
The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen, in his person and property, and in their management.7
Americans were never meant to have their natural, individual liberties superseded by what a powerful government deems best for “the collective.”