With the fourth of July coming up, it’s a good time to review the Declaration of Independence.
The Two Best Paragraphs in the Declaration
The first two paragraphs in the document give you an entire philosophy of government in themselves:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Fundamental Principles of Government from the Declaration
A few of the principles of government that we see here are:
- All people are created equal.
- Therefore all people have certain unalienable rights. Chief among these rights are life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the ability to own property (not stated here, but in the original draft).
- These rights are given by God.
- Therefore, our rights are not “privileges” granted or controlled by the government. They exist prior to and apart from the government, and the government must respect them.
- Therefore, government exists for the sake of the people, not the people for the sake of the government. Government does not have a right to lord it over the people.
- Instead, government exists to preserve and protect these rights. Government is not ultimately about control.
- The government cannot do anything it chooses. There are certain things that are wrong for a government to do, even apart from impressively stated arguments for their pragmatic value.
- The rights of the people are more important than the desires of the government.
- Government derives its powers from the consent of the governed; the people do not derive their rights from the will or choice of the government.
- People have the right to abolish their government when it becomes destructive of these ends.
This is simply radical. Really, we should be stunned and immensely grateful that our society came to recognize these truths. In a world where so many people seek after power, it is incredible that a government should come to exist which acknowledges that the power of government is not ultimate.
The Single Governing Principle of Government
We can roll all of these principles up into a single, governing principle of human government: the purpose of government is to protect and maximize the freedom of the people. And people have this freedom because they are all created equal (so people in government are not “more equal” than the private citizen — even when they are working for the “collective good”) and endowed with intrinsic rights that they hold simply by virtue of being human.
In order for government to accomplish this purpose, there are two necessary implications, both of which are embodied in our Constitution:
- Limited government.
- Separation of powers.
What True Liberalism Is
The principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence, by the way, are what “liberalism” really is. Today the term “liberal” is used to refer to policies that seek to expand the place of government and give it a greater role in people’s lives. That’s not liberal — that’s conservative.
It’s conservative because it seeks to conserve the way the world functioned for thousands of years before the American Revolution — namely, a world where government saw its power as ultimate, rather than the God-given rights of the people as prior to the power of government.
What today is called “conservatism,” on the other hand, actually used to be called political liberalism because it advocated for change from the government-first ideology that dominated for almost all of human history before that. It advocated for the principles that we see outlined in the Declaration. That’s why on my Facebook profile I put my political views as classical liberalism.
By the way, you can read the whole Declaration of Independence here.