Monday, July 4, 2011

Independence Day

Richard Stengel's recent article in Time is, as economist and social scientist Thomas Sowell notes, "a long and rambling essay" that "manages to create a toxic blend of the irrelevant and the erroneous." What Stengel seems to misunderstand is that "a constitution does not exist to micro-manage particular "events" or express opinions about the passing scene. A constitution exists to create a framework for government -- and the Constitution of the United States tries to keep the government inside that framework." Another misleading article appeared in the Washington Post. Instead of considering the Lockean influence on the words "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and the just nature of property rights, the author chooses to present the phrase as if it were in conflict with the "public good" (perhaps not the author's intention, but the wording seems to imply this). The concept of states' rights (what the author calls "We the States") is pitted against "We the People." Yet, the concept of states' rights was prevalent in early U.S. political thought, with the supposed conflict obviously not recognized by its earliest proponents.[1] The common trend we find in articles such as these is the same desire found among "progressives" of the early 20th century to "move beyond the political principles of the American founding." This is "an argument to enlarge vastly the scope of national government for the purpose of responding to a set of economic and social conditions which, progressive contend, could not have been envisioned at the founding and for which the founders' limited, constitutional government was inadequate...While criticism of the Constitution could be found during any period of American history, the Progressive Era was unique in that such criticism formed the backbone of the entire movement...The progressives understood the intention and structure of the Constitution very well; they knew that it established a framework for limited government, and that these limits...placed on the national government by the Constitution represented major obstacles to implementing the progressive policy agenda."[2] Despite claims for social justice, what these progressive policies ended up creating was social control.[3] I have for some time been convinced that there exists a very Western attitude of anti-Westernism (or, more specifically, an American attitude of anti-Americanism):

Our postmodern age does not seem to view criticism as a way of refining and deepening our loyalty to the real achievements of Western culture, not the least of which is the freedom to criticize. We seem to relish denunciation for its own sake. Why? To begin, the notion that the West is the Great Satan feeds our egoism. As [Pascal] Bruckner explains, “This is the paternalism of the guilty conscience: seeing ourselves as the kings of infamy is still a way of staying on the crest of history.” For a long time the liberal establishment in America believed that our society was the source of good in the world. The traumas of the 1960s undermined this complacent belief in American exceptionalism. But it did not lead to a more nuanced view of America's place in the world. The vanity remained intact, transforming itself into a belief that America is the exceptional source of evil in the world.

We are still the great exception, but now we're exceptionally bad.

Commenting on the uniqueness of the American experiment, historian Victor Davis Hansen writes,

Most revolutions seek to destroy the existing class order and use all-powerful government to mandate an equality of result rather than of opportunity -- in the manner of the French Revolution's slogan of "liberty, equality and fraternity" or the Russian Revolution's "peace, land and bread." In contrast, our revolutionaries shouted "Don't tread on me!" and "Give me liberty or give me death!" The Founders were convinced that constitutionally protected freedom would allow the individual to create wealth apart from government. Such enlightened self-interest would then enrich society at large far more effectively that could an all-powerful state.

Such constitutionally protected private property, free enterprise and market capitalism explain why the United States -- with only about 4.5 percent of the world's population -- even today, in an intensely competitive global economy, still produces a quarter of the world's goods and services. To make America unexceptional, inept government overseers, as elsewhere in the world, would determine the conditions -- where, when, how and by whom -- under which businesses operate. Individual freedom in America manifests itself in ways most of the world can hardly fathom...Herding, silencing or enfeebling Americans is almost impossible -- and will remain so as long as well-protected citizens can say what they want and do as they please with their hard-earned money.

Race, tribe or religion often defines a nation's character, either through loose confederations of ethnic or religious blocs as in Rwanda, Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, or by equating a citizenry with a shared appearance as reflected in the German word "volk" or the Spanish "raza." And while the United States was originally crafted largely by white males who improved upon Anglo-Saxon customs and the European Enlightenment, the Founders set in place an "all men are created equal" system that quite logically evolved into the racially blind society of today.

The Prophet Joseph Smith spoke numerous times of the inspiration behind the principles of the U.S. Constitution, both in revelations and in sermons.[4] Therefore, this July 4th, let us celebrate the truly exceptional values and principles that gave birth to the American experiment.


1. See Thomas E. Woods, Jr.,"Question 4: Were States' Rights Just Code Word for Slavery and Oppression?" and "Question 19: Where Did Thomas Jefferson's Radical States' Rights Ideas Come From?" in his 33 Questions About American History You're Not Supposed to Ask (Three Rivers Press, 2007).

2. Ronald J. Pestritto, William J. Atto, "Introduction to American Progressivism," in American Progressivism: A Reader, eds. Pestritto, Atto (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008), 2-3.

3. See David E. Bernstein, Thomas C. Leonard, "Excluding Unfit Workers: Social Control Versus Social Justice in the Age of Economic Reform," Law and Contemporary Problems 72 (2009).

4. For a brief, yet informative overview of Joseph's comments on the Constitution, see John W. Welch, "Thoughts on Joseph Smith and the Constitution," The Thread 1:2 (May 2007).

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