Today is election day – so I won’t discuss the election. Rather, I will discuss something foundational to our nation. We live in constant danger of forgetting this crucial founding principle which sets the United States apart from other nations – all men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, including but not limited to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our government is neither the source nor the guarantor of these rights. In fact, as President Obama correctly observed – our constitution is something in the way of a charter of negative liberties – that is, it primarily defines the things government CANNOT do (to us) in such a free society where our rights descend from a higher source. Long before President Obama, Thomas Paine stressed the difference between government and society regarding society as a great blessing and government as, at best, a necessary evil that, over time, tends to become an intolerable evil. I always recall the tag line from Paine’s discussion – I tell you; the palaces of kings are built over the bowers of paradise!
Many struggle here with what seems an inherent contradiction. On the one hand we believe it necessary to maintain a wall of separation between church and state and forbid the establishment of an official state religion. But on the other hand, our founding principle is based on the notion that we are endowed with basic human rights by our creator. A few thoughts.
Even as I say this I realize that prisons and capital punishment certainly seem to qualify as depriving individuals of liberty or life or the pursuit of happiness – all of which are counted among those unalienable rights granted by the creator. And yet – the rationale for so depriving individuals of life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness is not the prerogative of the government but of the people. The people recognize that situations arise in which certain individuals, for whatever reasons, become threats to the everyone’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. A free society will not countenance my pursuing happiness by taking an ax to all my neighbors. This would be in complete disregard of the very idea of unalienable human rights. Whether my neighbors put a stop to the threat themselves or call on the services of the government – sacred rights are protected rather than denied by preventing me from taking the ax to my neighbors. The role of government is ONLY to carry out these terms of our social compact in as least violent and invasive way as possible.
Problems arise when the government ceases to be the servant of the free society and sets out to become its master. Problems arise when the government begins to regard itself as the author and guarantor of our unalienable rights rather than as the servant of all we rights-bearers.
So, it’s election day. Remember who we are and vote.