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An Exceptional Revolution

April 2, 2015

Special feature written exclusively for the Goldwater Institute

This exceptionalism was put forth first in our nation’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence.

The Constitution must be read in the light of the Declaration, in which the most important word is “secure”.

“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,” and “governments are instituted among men” to “secure these rights.”

Not give us our rights. Rights preexist government. The word “secure” inherently stipulates a limited agenda for government.

The leaders of the freedom movement have started to pursue judicial engagement on behalf of liberty. Not judicial activism in the sense of making up social policies, but judicial engagement in the sense that our country, of course, believes in majority rule, but we don’t only believe in majority rule. Majority rule is a value, but is not the supreme value that trumps all others. The supreme value is, of course, liberty itself.

Often liberty needs to be defended against majorities. The conservative-liberal argument has acquired a special sharpness and clarity over the last six years. They turn on two values, both important and always intentional, with tension always being adjusted between liberty and equality.

Conservatives say that liberty is the most important value, but markets are better than political institutions at allocating wealth and opportunity.  In fact, because markets are more equitable in the long run, the multiplication of entitlement programs is subversive of the attitudes and aptitudes essential for a free society.

Liberals today argue that equality is the most important value and understand not just equality of opportunity but equality of social outcome. To that end, they say the multiplication of entitlement programs serves equality, because it makes more and more Americans more and more dependent — equally dependent on a common source of material well-being–the government.

It seems to me what we have to understand is that the progressive agenda, which we can now see with particular clarity, is about equality independency. And, therefore, the progressive agenda turns on de-stigmatizing dependency, making Americans comfortable with increasing dependency on government.

We are reaching a tipping point in society where government becomes so overbearing, so overwhelming in its regulatory and suffocating effect, that a downward spiral of the welfare state begins. The weight of government suppresses the energies of the private sector, which alone can throw off the revenues to pay the bills. The government shares the revenues and therefore tries to capture the revenues by raising taxes, which of course further dampens the private sector’s energy. Thus the downward spiral continues.

In 2010, Joe Biden said that every important idea of the last 200 years “has required government vision and government incentive.” That is an idea reputed every day in American history and by the Goldwater Institute, which exists to take time-tested ideas and give them new saliency and relevance.

In the 1790s, a young Yale graduate went to a plantation to become a tutor and became tired of the planters complaining about separating cotton seeds from cotton fiber. So this young man, Eli Whitney, invented the cotton gin. With the spread of slavery, it unfortunately made the plantation system prosper and brought with it the Civil War — rather a lot of change that didn’t begin at the ballot box, but with one man’s creativity.

In the 1830s, in central Illinois, where I am from, a young blacksmith devised an alternative to the soft cast-iron plow by developing the steel plow. This man’s name was John Deere.

This is the American story. It’s the America of sufficient space for individual initiative. Sufficient space for unregulated lives, where the spark of genius can make itself felt.

The American people have an exceptional revolution, not one that said “we’re going to deliver you happiness,” but one that said “we’ll set you free to pursue happiness as you define it on your own terms.” We have an exceptional constitution that doesn’t say what the government must do for us, but says what the government may not do to us. Finally, we are exceptional because we are immune to the modern form of European pessimism that says individual initiative is unavailing because vast and personal forces determine one’s fate in life. 

Individual initiative striving for self-reliance with non-dependency is not only our past, it can be the way for our future.



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