The title of this post is derived from the last paragraph of "Fighting Statism," by Justin Blackman (American Thinker, April 25, 2010):
Advocates of liberty must adopt individualism as a moral conviction if we are to renew the hope that our nation can be reclaimed, salvaged, and rebuilt with the proper foundation. We must demand that our representatives adhere consistently and uncompromisingly to individual rights, and we must make it clear that we will accept no political infringement upon our sovereignty as individuals. The battle of ideas is being waged here and now, and there has never been a more urgent time to act. The outcome will determine whether our nation will collapse from the weakness of its own philosophical contradictions or thrive once again.
The problem with America today is that we've abandoned our heritage of individualism and individual responsibility. As did the ancient Israelites, Americans have fallen prey to the false promises of security, prosperity, and peace through the collective state.
Most Americans are familiar with the following words famously declared on July 4, 1776:
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 ...
I suspect most Americans feel a warm sense of pride when they hear these words too. Yet today, very few are willing to embrace them anymore. With the common argument against "unalienable rights" going something like this:
Sure, that sounds nice. But "reality" dictates that members of society are incapable of self-government and voluntary cooperation, because man is driven by greed, immorality and/or sin.
Soon after the Revolution, detractors to the idea of liberty got to work and started growing in numbers. The debate over the rights of man were at the center of the presidential election of 1800, a bitter battle in which Thomas Jefferson whose conviction was that liberty yielded social cooperation, defeated John Adams, who believed that liberty could only be established through government authority.
Shays' Rebellion (1786 to 1787), an uprising of poor farmers in Massachusetts who were angered by high taxes and crushing debt (sound familiar?) played a critical role. Thousands were put in debtors prison and/or the government confiscated the property of those who couldn't pay.
Thomas Jefferson responded to the event by saying that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing" for America, because the people had a right to express their grievances against the government. John Adams, who was president at the time, responded with the passage of the Riot Act, outlawing illegal assemblies.
Then in 1798, under the threat of war with France, President Adams singed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, designed to strengthen the federal government and stifle political opposition coming from the Republicans led by Jefferson. Benjamin Franklin's grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, was arrested for libeling President Adams under the Alien and Sedition Acts.
And so it remains today ... the individual or the state?
Friedrich von Hayek traced the tradition of individual liberty from Cicero, to Locke, Hume, and Immanuel Kant. The common thread among these great thinkers is that society is more capable than government in shaping a prosperous, moral order. Vital for Hayek was the conviction that liberty and law could exist in harmony with each other, because law itself emerged spontaneously from within society as its members sought to manage their own affairs.
This natural law is adhered to as a matter of voluntary contract, or rules - churches, condo associations, civic organizations, businesses. This law exists apart from the state and reflects the desire of individuals to cooperate toward their own betterment, as was the case for centuries before the ancient Israelites demanded a king.
In contrast to the tradition of individualism, another view of rights sees all rules in society as rising out of state authority. This is the common thread among Hobbes, Hegel, and Marx. Because the character of society is not derived from concepts of morality (such as Christianity), it is therefore the business of government authority to distinguish right from wrong, creating order through absoluteness.
In this post, we've barely scratched the surface of the never-ending battle over the rights of man. In a future post, we'll look at how both the political left and right in America have adopted the collectivist view, despite most individual Americans seeing things from the individual/inalienable perspective (particularly Christians who believe they are made in the image of God).
In the mean time, please take the time to develop a better understanding of your rights by clicking and reading the following links.