The United States of America was the first country in history to be founded, explicitly, on any philosophy, and is still the only country in history to have been founded on the principle of individual rights. It had taken thousands of years for a series of heroes, Aristotle foremost among them — aided by unlikely happenstance upon unlikely happenstance, the unintended consequences of misplaced passions, the printing press, and a mad monk — to wrest the idea of individual rights into being. At the peak of the Enlightenment, in the afterglow of Newton, when humanity was still beaming with new-found pride in its power to reason, when it still seemed possible to organize a society on rational principles, some few among the revolutionary generation of Americans sought to put the theory of individual rights into practice. This idea inspired a rag-tag conglomeration of Britain’s cast-offs to take up arms against the most powerful empire in the world, to fight it, persevere, and win. Yet today, if you were to ask a recent college graduate, one who had paid close attention in her classes at a top-tier school, a superb student, a model, a paragon: “In the interest of justice, before anything else, what should everyone understand about founding of the United States of America?” she would unhesitatingly answer: “The founders kept slaves, didn’t recognize women as equals, and stole all their land from the first peoples.”
This profound superficiality, which is the rule among the up-and-coming “educated” classes in contemporary American society, is a large part of why, if something doesn’t change, if Hillary is elected president, we are likely fucked. If vacuous ignorance continues to align itself with oligarchic power, there will be no coming back. The tens-of-thousands-of-years long slog through the muck of human misery, the millennia of the strong preying on the weak, of priests, nobles, and kings pressing their boots on the necks of the men and women they saw below them, like a dark tide that has been out too long, like an ocean sucked flat before a tsunami, will come rushing back, black and inexorable, to drown out all hope.
While today a variety of significant cultural, political, and institutional forces are aligned against individual rights, and the forces that contend to preserve rights are weak and few, the transition from freedom to enslavement is likely to be permanent for deeper reasons. The uniqueness of the American way in human history indicates a basic truth about us: that we do not yet know how to be free. Taken as a whole, humanity does not yet want to be free. Our ancient habit is to submit to hierarchies, to raise up chiefs and presidents, medicine men and priests, to anoint David with oils, to give glory to the emperor, to carry pictures of Chairman Mao, and to elect FDR to four consecutive terms in office. To be free, humanity must learn something new.
Even though they didn’t have the reach for it yet, the American revolutionary generation grasped at political freedom, at this something new. But what does political “freedom” mean, really? When a contemporary politician alludes to “our freedoms” or the like, it sounds like an empty platitude — because it is. Still, just because a word can be parroted meaninglessly, doesn’t mean it’s meaningless. In a political context, freedom means: a social organization that secures individual rights. If this were broadly understood, there would be zero chance of Hillary Clinton’s election in November. If it were broadly understood, Donald Trump would never have won the Republican party’s nomination. If it were broadly understood, there would be riots in the streets tomorrow. These realities hint at why the ruling classes have worked so long, so hard, and so effectively, to make sure this isn’t broadly understood. They explain the profound superficiality of our exemplary college graduate.
In fact, the concept of ‘rights’ has been so muddled (people now believe that healthcare and Internet access are “rights” (!)), that it now communicates nothing to a general audience. This is a disaster in the making. Hillary Clinton’s election to the presidency would significantly advance an existential threat to Western civilization, but that threat would come in the form of a sneak attack on the very rights that, now, few Americans understand or appreciate. The greatest treasure of our civilization, the work of generations of geniuses, the inheritance that we are squandering, individual rights, may be stolen from us by a threadbare con.
Since it means less than nothing to a contemporary audience to warn them, “Hillary Clinton is a threat to individual rights!” let us consider the matter indirectly. If you cannot understand what Clinton is against, understand what she is for. And what Hillary Clinton is for (publicly) is: her vision of the “common good.”
What is the “common good?” The “common good” is a vision of what the left carefully calls the “distribution” of goods in a society — plus one additional element, which we will come to shortly. To understand the “common good,” one must first understand goods generally. Education, healthcare, housing, clothing, food, transportation and entertainment are all goods. Romantic partnerships, friendships, and pets are goods. Goods are everything we spend our lives trying to get and to keep.
In the Western world, it is broadly agreed (for now) that people should be able to decide for themselves what goods to prioritize in their own lives. It is also understood that not every effort to get or to keep a good will be successful. For example, you might want to be a lawyer, but if your LSAT scores are too low, that good will be difficult or impossible for you to get. And people generally accept that not always getting the goods that we want is normal.
Despite the general agreement that goods are, largely, a personal matter, and that, to some degree, we won’t always get the goods we want, most politicians adhere to some vision of the “common good.” This “common good” is supposed to both override the private goods of individuals and also to underpin all these private goods. What I mean by this is that politicians tend to believe that certain “distributions” of goods in society are necessary for the “health” of the society. But since goods don’t come from thin air, but have to be produced with thought and effort, and since politicians don’t produce goods themselves, this means that any who subscribe to an idea of the “common good” intend to steal goods from some individuals and hand them to others. This is their only means for having goods “distributed” in accordance with their visions. Thus a vision of the “common good” overrode my own personal good when my income was taxed to support the second Iraq war. I would never have volunteered to support it in any way. Yet, against my will, the government took my goods (my earnings), by force, and used them to buy a few rounds of depleted uranium, or something equally repugnant to me. The implicit justification for this was that the Iraq war was in the “national interest,” which is another way of saying “common good.” So president Bush had a vision of dead Iraqis that he thought was more important than my vision of, e.g., a new pair of cross-country skis, and his vision overrode mine, with the help of all the United States’ government’s guns.
This is how the “common good” overrides individuals’ private goods. But the “common good,” in theory, only has this overriding privilege because it benefits everyone. Supposedly, maiming and killing Iraqis — after pretending they had something to do with 9/11 — protected our “freedom.” And since individual Americans, like me, could hardly pursue our own private goods without the benefit of our “freedom” — well, you can see why all that maiming and killing had to be done.
Another example of how the “common good” is supposed to underpin each individuals’ private good is found justifying public education. The theory there is that educated workers produce more goods, which enriches the entire society. Therefore, say proponents of the “common good,” taxing me to provide public education actually benefits me and everyone else; it underpins my successful pursuit of private goods, because it improves the economy and makes more goods available at less cost.
With these examples in mind, we can expand on the definition of “common good” above: The “common good” is a vision of the proper distribution of goods in a society, intended to be realized by force.
Because Hillary “It Takes a Village” Clinton is an enthusiastic proponent of the “common good,” she rejects freedom. A society can be guided by one principle, or by the other, but never by both. A free society must reject, as an organizing principle, any reference to a “common good.”
The necessary opposition between political freedom and any “common good” is not trivial to discover. Our paragon of contemporary college education — with someone’s vision of social justice misting her eyes — will not find it. For us to discover the connection now, we must examine the founding principles of the United States.
Ceremonially, the United States came into being in July of 1776, with the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration proclaimed the following founding principles:
- Equality: The Declaration repudiated the notion, central to all prior systems of government, that some men were, either by nature or by divine sanction, “set above” others. In the Declaration, there is no political hierarchy among men: we are all, politically, equal.
- Unalienable Rights: Rights are the central concept of the Declaration, derived directly from Locke’s philosophy (and, by extension, from Aristotle’s). To “alienate” something, a possession for example, means to separate it from yourself. You “alienate” your dollars when you spend them. You “alienate” your house when you sell it. You “alienate” your old clothes when you give them to a charity. According to the Declaration, you cannot “alienate” a right: rights cannot be sold, traded, or given away. If they are taken away, the taking is always illegitimate and always criminal.
- Natural Rights: In the Declaration, rights are not just inseparable from the individuals who hold them, they are aspects of human nature, endowed by God when he created humans and created human nature. This means that rights exist before governments, and outside and beyond all governments. Because human nature is the same at all times and in all places, rights are the same in all times and in all places. Rights do not “evolve,” develop, or change in any way. The number of rights cannot increase or decrease. No new rights will ever be discovered (although some rights that have existed all along might come to be recognized), and nothing that was ever a right can ever, later, turn out not to be a right. (It is vital to note here that the author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, was a Deist. When a Deist writes the word “God,” he does not mean what typical churchgoers today mean by that word. Deists were the Enlightenment-era analog of what, in contemporary life, we call “atheists.” Deists believed only nominally in God, as a kind of abstract force that created the laws that govern the cosmos, then let the clockwork mechanism of the cosmos turn out its internal tensions for the rest of eternity. While it’s true that not all of the founders were Deists, and some (Sam Adams, for example) were fervent Christians, it’s also true that Enlightenment Deism was the animating philosophy behind the Declaration, and behind the United States as such. Far from being a religious republic, or a republic founded on or inspired by Christian belief, the United States were the most non-theistic political entity in human history.)
- Unlimited Rights: The wording of the Declaration is subtle (by contemporary standards). It is easy to miss key implications by passing too breezily through its passages. Take this sentence, for example: “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.” The word “among” here implies that there are other rights than those listed. In fact, in natural-rights theory, individuals possess an infinite number of rights. Essentially, it holds that individuals have a right to do anything and everything they deem necessary to do in order to preserve and secure their lives. To put this in concrete terms: according to this theory, you have an absolute right to read She-Hulk comics (assuming you do not obtain them by force). You have this right, for example, because if it makes you happy to read She-Hulk, then that happiness contributes to the preservation of your life — if only by contributing to a pleasant evening, which makes it easier to relax and rest well, which makes it easier to get up on time, which makes it easier to get to work on time, which makes it easier to keep producing whatever it is you produce in order to provide for yourself. She-Hulk, by your own judgment, helps you to be productive in the service of your own life. Therefore, you have an absolute right to all the She-Hulk you can obtain through peaceful trade.
- Rights-Based Government: According to the Declaration, the whole, entire, exhaustive purpose of government is to secure individuals’ rights. There is no legitimate purpose for government beyond this. (And here we begin to see how radically individual rights theory repudiates the notion of a “common good.”)
- Consent of the Governed: In the Declaration, because the only (legitimate) purpose of government is to secure individuals’ rights, and because it is an observable fact that governments do not always limit themselves to this one legitimate function, there needs to be a way for the legitimacy of a government to be decided. The answer given in the Declaration is that governments are legitimate only as long as they keep the consent of the governed. This consent can be withdrawn at any time, which leads to the next principle of the Declaration.
- The Right of Revolution: Since the people can withdraw their consent at any time, and since, in practice, governments tend to prefer not to be dissolved and replaced, the Declaration proclaims the people’s right to “alter or abolish” a government whenever they believe that government is failing to secure their rights. The clear implication is that the people have the right to do this violently, if necessary. As Jefferson wrote elsewhere:
what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? let them take arms. the remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. what signify a few lives lost in a century or two? the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. it is it’s natural manure.
- Popular Sovereignty: Consistent with what Locke had argued in his Second Treatise of Government, the Declaration’s view of governing power is that it is power derived from the people. In other words, whatever power and authority a government legitimately wields, it wields as a loan from the people. As such, it is the people (individuals in the aggregate) who are sovereign, not the government, not any king, legislature, or council. Popular sovereignty would be the principle underpinning the United States’ Constitution.
Taken all together, these principles of the Declaration construct government as the servant of the people, a diametric reversal of thousands of years of human history. Consider now: if the government is really the servant of the people (meaning, not merely in rhetoric, but in practice), what will it be permitted to do? Some people, for example, might want the government to subsidize corn production, because they truly believe these subsidies will benefit the country as a whole (it being a mere coincidence, of course, that those with this insight farm corn). But surely other people would rather keep their wealth than give it to corn farmers. Still others might want the same wealth that might be expropriated for corn subsides to subsidize college tuition instead. If the corn crowd manages to capture the government’s power and turn it toward its vision of the “common good,” everyone else loses.
Since there are contingents for and against just about any conceivable use of government power, it is obviously incoherent to claim that government is the servant of the people as a whole, if it is going to be common practice for one contingent to get its wishes today, another tomorrow, and neither the day after. There are only three possible solutions to this dilemma: One, to give up the notion that government is, or ought to be, the servant of the people. Two, to school the people to assent to one set of common values (a universal “common good”), so that everyone assents to the forces brought to bear in service of those values. Three, to radically limit the use of government power, so that no “interest group” can ever use it to steal goods from some and hand them to others. (Some readers, probably hailing from what I have elsewhere called the “Blue team,” might want there to be a fourth option: to say that government serves the people, even if it takes goods from some needy people to give to others who are no more needy, as long as the winners and losers are decided upon democratically. Think about that for a bit. Realize it’s a dishonest dodge. Move on.)
The framers of the United States’ Constitution chose the third option. Their implementation of the Declaration‘s principle of popular sovereignty was the constitutional precept of enumerated powers. This basic principle of the Constitution means that the federal government has only the powers that are explicitly granted to it (enumerated) in the text. If a power is not explicitly granted to the federal government, from the limitless pool of powers (rights) that each individual possesses by nature, then the federal government, in theory, has no right to exercise that power.
Consider the implications of this for the “common good.” If government is only granted a meager quiver of powers, just enough to secure individual rights and no more, where will it find the power to expropriate goods from some citizens and hand them to others? Nowhere. A limited government is too fine an instrument to be wielded for the “common good.” That requires a club, something blunt enough and broad enough to “get things done.” This indicates why freedom, individual rights, limited government, and prosperity like mankind had never before seen came up together in history. It also indicates why slavery, contingent and ever-changing “rights,” tyrannical government, and mass poverty characterized all previous social orders. This is an either-or choice. There is no way around it.
Now, no one could reasonably argue that the federal government has, in fact, kept within the size and scope suggested by the theory outlined above. (One could argue instead that the theory is inaccurate, but that would be a losing case.) Not only do we have corn subsidies, we have federal bureaucrats telling Americans what plants they can smoke, how many inches from the ground their hand-railings have to be, how prepared their restaurants must be to accommodate miniature horses, how much gasoline their trucks are allowed to burn, what wage they are allowed to work for, what parts they are allowed to have in their rifles, where they can keep their retirement savings, how much money they are allowed to put in a bank account (without being investigated), how much money they are allowed to withdraw from a bank account (without being investigated), what patterns of deposit and withdrawal they are allowed to follow (without being investigated), and, perhaps most importantly, what percentage of fat content is minimally permissible in a processed cheese spread.
But maybe it is all for the best? Maybe the blurring of the federal government’s once-narrow boundary lines has enabled us to pursue a “common good” that’s worthwhile? Maybe all this change has not been corruption, but progress?
No one really cares, in the abstract, whether the United States’ government adheres to the principles of its founding. What people care about, if they care at all, is whether the government does good — or, perhaps, allows good to be freely done. If the principles of the founding were good, right, and true, and they have been abandoned, that is a matter for concern, and for remedial action. But if they were no good in the first place, then their apparent abandonment is hardly worth noting.
The upcoming election is a referendum on these questions. Put directly: A vote for Hillary Clinton says: “Yes, these changes are for the best. Yes, there’s a common good worth pursuing. Yes, the changes so far have been progress.”
But the truth is the opposite: These changes are destroying individual rights. There is no such thing as a common good, because the notion is incoherent. What’s happened so far has not been progress, but a return to the norm, a regression to the mean of human history: slavery and tyranny, justified by mystical visions. If Hillary is elected, she will, with the full support of the ruling class, slyly prepare Americans to be ruled, cowed, enslaved, degraded, and impoverished. She will do this superbly well. She will do this in the name of a “common good,” and I think she will sincerely believe that she is making the world better. She will be wrong.
People reasonably fear Donald Trump as president. His principles are incoherent. He is brash, ignorant, and oblivious to his limitations. Although they are not, I think, representative of his support, racists and other savages do throng to him. Although I believe he does love America, in some hazy way, and all that it means and stands for, he will not advance the cause of freedom. He will not restore the promise of the Enlightenment. But Trump’s haphazard vision is cast perpendicular to the arrow of history. If elected, his notion of the common good will go nowhere, as institutions and inertia will resist him. This will give the few of us who have some sense a little time to act. Maybe then the death of Western civilization can be averted.