I’ve been developing a hypothesis about the central founding principles of America. I was inspired by a recent National Review Institute discussion on nationalism between Rich Lowry and Jonah Goldberg, moderated by Jim Geraghty. (It’s a good discussion, about 30 minutes long, here.) At around 5:10, Goldberg said:
Now, I heard Tucker [Carlson] earlier, or at least bits and pieces of him, love Tucker, been friends with him for 25 years I think he is completely wrong when he said that bit about how “all I’m asking for is a goal, what we want as a nation is a goal, what’s our goal. You can’t solve a problem unless you have a goal.” The goal of the American experiment is frickin’ liberty. [Applause.] And my idea of, the pursuit of happiness is an individual right. Nationalism tends to trample that and define the pursuit of happiness as a collective thing. That’s dangerous.
I found myself in significant disagreement with Goldberg, particularly with his assertion that “the goal of the American experiment is frickin’ liberty.” I think that this is clearly one goal, but not the only one.
Notice that Goldberg based his argument immediately on the Declaration of Independence. This does seem to be sensible, but liberty is not the only thing mentioned in the Declaration, and the Declaration it is not the only relevant document. Perhaps we should look to the Constitution, too.
This was the inspiration for my thought. I’ve identified 11 Founding principles, from the Declaration and the Preamble to the Constitution. I rely on parts that I have memorized — and that I expect most of you have memorized, as well:
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.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
We can extract eleven principles from these statements:
- Faith in God.
- Representative government.
- Promotion of morality under a system of justice.
- Equal application of the law to all people.
- Patriotic or nationalist commitment to the country.
- Strong law enforcement to secure the peace.
- Strong national defense.
- Promotion of the general welfare.
- An individual right to life.
- An individual right to liberty.
- An individual right to the pursuit of happiness.
Most of these are obvious in the text. Faith in God is implied by the assertion that our “Creator” is the source of our rights, and that securing such rights is the purpose of the creation of government. Representative government is implied by the assertion that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. Nationalistic or patriotic commitment to the country is implied by the purpose of securing a more perfect Union. Law enforcement is implied by the assertion that the government must ensure domestic tranquility. I think that all of these are quite clear.
“Morality” isn’t specifically mentioned, and is probably the most debatable of my points. I think that it is implicit both in the establishment of justice and the promotion of the general welfare. Justice is essentially about enforcing moral behavior, and the “general welfare” is about more than postal roads, in my view.
I think that this is a pretty good list, derived from the most inspirational portions of our two founding texts.
The objection that I have to libertarian-leaning friends like Goldberg is the elevation of liberty above the other ten Founding values. I have no objection to the inclusion of liberty among these values, and I agree that it is an important one. However, liberty is not the only value, and it sometimes conflicts with others. This is not unique to liberty, as other values are sometimes in conflict. It does seem to me, though, that liberty and the pursuit of happiness are more often in conflict with certain other values.
Increasingly, I’ve been inclined to think that the overemphasis on this single value of liberty, to the exclusion of the ten others, is the cause of many of our current problems.Published in