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Any discussion about the proper role of government can be improved by an appeal back to the ideas upon which our nation was founded. In the Declaration of Independence, we find perhaps the most concise expression of those very ideas and beliefs. The Declaration is clear: the Founders believed in individual liberty, defined by the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, secured by a government created for that purpose, gaining its legitimate power from the consent of the governed.
The order of the words in the Declaration is important. Upon carefully reading the Declaration, as Roger Pilon at the Cato Institute has done, one will notice that there is no mention of government until the moral order of the world the Founders envisioned is laid out. Their philosophy begins in a "state of nature," where no government has yet been created by human beings. It is not until after the moral order is established that the political order-- which comes from this moral order-- is discussed.
We Hold these Truths to be Self-evident
Here, in the first line, the authors let us know that reason provides the source of the propositions to follow. They say the truths that follow are self-evident, which is to say they are deductible through reason. This indicates that the Founders are working within the philosophical tradition of natural rights. This viewpoint holds that there is a higher law of right and wrong that can be used to derive just laws.
That all Men are Created Equal
This phrase tells us that the Founders rejected the hierarchical views held by many at the time-- including some natural rights theorists-- claiming that some people deserve different legal treatment because they are superior to others. Instead, the Founders hold that we all have equal natural rights; therefore, before the law, we should all be treated the same. This statement does not argue for equality of outcomes (such as equal incomes), which is the sort of egalitarianism that became fashionable during the past century. To argue for egalitarianism is to argue that we do not all have equal natural rights because, in order to achieve an egalitarian outcome, assets, or the product of ones labor, need to be taken from some and given to others, which is to argue that some, those redistributed to, have superior rights to those redistributed from.
At this point, the source of the argument, reason, and the first premise, that we are all equal, have been put forth.
That they are Endowed by their Creator with certain Inalienable Rights
Here we are told the source of our rights. They are not given to us by the government; rather, we are born with them. This puts the power in the hands of the people, to be granted only as they see fit. This follows clearly from the "state-of-nature" idea. Humans exist first, and then create governments. If our rights came from government, humans existing before government would not have rights that are inherent to being human, which is impossible.
Also of note is that the Founders are using the language of rights, rather than virtue or morals, as they lay down their vision. They are creating a system based on law and liberty, not one meant to impose certain values. This is consistent with the idea of everyone being equal, which includes the equal right to pursue different courses, some which others may not find virtuous, but which are our natural right, so long as they do not infringe upon the liberties of others.
That among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
There are an infinite number of rights that can be summed up in one right: the right to be free. This sentiment is captured in this phrase, which points out that "among" our inalienable rights are the rights to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." These words add further strength to the distinction between rights and values. One's pursuit of happiness may take an entirely different form than another's, but that is not the concern of the arbiter of power. That arbiter, as we will soon find out, is limited in using its power to securing our rights. We are not told how to pursue happiness but rather that we are born with a right to do so, as our own personal sets of values direct us. Having already set forth the notion of equality, however, we have no superior right over others, and are thus obligated to respect the equal rights of others to pursue happiness as they so desire.
Embodied in the concept of rights is the implicit argument of property, since to have rights is to have the property that is rights. The Founders have now created a world where individuals are free to pursue the ends they chose, so long as they do not violate the rights-- that is to say, so long as they do not take the property of others.
That to Secure these Rights, Governments are Institute among Men
Here is the first we hear of the existence of government ”after a world based on truths derived from reason, and based on equal treatment and the right to be free, has been drawn. And it is clear why the government has been created: "to Secure these Rights." Now that the Founders have moved from a state of nature to a state of government, other questions are raised about scope and legitimacy of the government. Reason brings us this far, but as we get into the specific decisions about where one person's rights end and another's begin, subjective decisions will have to be made. Some preferring private enforcement of rights may argue that forcing them to pay for public enforcement is itself a violation of rights, and they would be right. But as a practical matter, who else is to make the subjective decision on such things as how much evidence is needed to arrest someone, if not a government that has been given such power by the governed? If such a debate were to be decided privately, what would happen if the two parties disagreed, and refused to allow a third arbiter to decide? To solve this dilemma, governments are instituted to secure our rights and granted the right to the legitimate use of force.
Deriving their Just Powers from the Consent of the Governed
With the power to protect the rights naturally vested in the people, the government can only legitimately exist if some of those rights are consensually handed over by the people. As mentioned earlier, when subjective decision of where one's rights begin and another's end, the need for the third party arbiter arises. Questions arise here as to how much power is legitimate for the government to exercise once this consent has been given. Surely, all decisions made by the government cannot be considered legitimate on the basis of consent, as that would lead to the tyranny of the majority, or possibly the minority. The founders have already said how far this power can be taken, in the previous line: "to Secure these Rights." This limited amount of political determination is legitimated; the rest is do be done privately
If the state gets its legitimate power form the governed, who hand over certain powers they possess in that state of nature, then the realm of legitimate powers that government can possess is limited to those powers possessed by individuals in the state of nature. In the state of nature, one person does not have the right to forcibly take from another person and give it to a third, as this would violate the property rights of the person being taken from. Yet this is exactly what the redistribution activities of our government do. Since this is not a right individuals have in the state of nature, it is not a right that can be consensually given to the government, and thus can not be a legitimate power the government possesses.
Despite this careful wording, which outlines a vision of individual liberty and responsibility, and a government limited to securing our rights, the American government has become something different. Still, although the current government is much larger than what the Founders had envisioned, and stretches well beyond the borders of its legitimacy, it is still difficult to find many governments in the history of mankind that have managed to be as limited for so long. This has not happened by chance, but rather by choice, by the choice of the people of the United States to resist at least some of the temptations of government control, and by the choice of a dedicated few to remain vigilant in their efforts to fight the many subtle forms of government oppression. Members of Citizens for a Sound Economy can proudly count themselves part of this group. By getting involved in the political process and letting our elected representatives know freedom, not governance, is what we want, we keep the light of liberty burning, while so many others try to snuff it out.