(Originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent, 24 June 2004)
In anticipation of our forthcoming Independence Day, I took to spelunking the Political Science shelves for some appropriate reviewing material. Imagine my complete lack of surprise when confronted by a wall of inflammatory volumes from both the Left and the Right, written with crystal clear hindsight and assailing the evils of the opposite end of the political spectrum, asserting the corruption of mass media by the other party, along with the occasional Green, Anarchist, or Libertarian author insisting all the other guys have it wrong, both Left and Right.
One of the most compelling books I did find was by far the most seditious. While not stating any party affiliation, the author pulls no punches in the opening pages by succinctly declaring the duties of a government, and the rights of the people should a government be derelict in its duty: “… whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it (emphasis mine), and to institute a new Government…” Later in the same paragraph, he states, “… it is their Right, their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.” In our post-9/11 America, this is a title that I’m absolutely certain would have me, at best, detained by airport officials were I to quote from it aloud during security screening.
In The Declaration of Independence (Cato Institute Edition, paperback, 60 pages, $4.95), author Thomas Jefferson departs from the current political debate with his assertion that a change to the existing political system is not enough; rather, it is the obligation of the governed to build an entirely new system once the old one fails in its duties to the people. Using simple, clear, and rational language, Jefferson enumerates the crimes of his government and its leader in order to quantify the aforementioned dereliction of duty. Jefferson states, “He is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous of Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a Civilized Nation.” And later, “A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.”
This is a bold premise, but what makes it especially compelling is that Jefferson does not come across like some lunatic demagogue. Quite the contrary, a close read reveals him to be idealistic almost to the point of naive. When he states, “… 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” he makes it clear that a government does not grant any rights to its people, rather, the people erect government to protect the rights they are born with and under no circumstances can be denied; his vision of unalienable rights is so vast that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are only among those rights.
Equally striking is Jefferson’s notion that just as the government is accountable to its people, the people are accountable to those populations outside of their own society. “… decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” Read that again: decent respect to the opinions of mankind. That runs absolutely contrary to our own current Administration’s dismissal of world opinion regarding our current foreign policy.
After a close read of The Declaration of Independence, I can’t help but admire Jefferson for envisioning a place where meat-eating sport hunters, vegetarians, Burning Man participants, born-again Christians, homosexuals, and middle-class suburban families can coexist, fully acknowledging each others’ God-given rights, united in their duty to create a government to protect those rights. With all of the finger-pointing, mass-media noise, and pre-election hysteria, Jefferson’s road map for a republic is a breath of fresh air. It will be interesting to see if his ideas can be put into practice, and to see if such a place can truly exist.