“It will be hard,” President Barack Obama acknowledged in a speech earlier this year to Congress. But he added, “Let there be no doubt: health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year.” Some years before, then-President George W. Bush said, “…We reached an agreement to reduce pollution from off-road diesel engines by 90%. I’ve got a plan to increase the wetlands by 3 million…I proposed to the Congress a Clear Skies Initiative to reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury by 70%. …I proposed a hydrogen-generated automobile. We’re spending a billion dollars to come up with the technologies to do that.”
Such comments are nothing new. For decades, politicians have spoken about their visions to “take care” of American citizens, the world population, and the Earth itself. Lyndon Johnson implemented Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s in order to look after the medical needs of the elderly and the poor. Franklin Roosevelt implemented Social Security in the 1930s to provide for people’s finances after retirement. Theodore Roosevelt implemented forced conservation in the beginning of the twentieth century with millions of miles of government land ownership.
Underlying these policies is the idea that it is the government’s responsibility to oversee and take care of its citizens, to establish for them substantive ends such as universal healthcare, workers’ insurance, or pristine environments. But long before Presidents Obama and Bush, long before even Presidents Johnson and Roosevelt, presidents who held a very different vision of the role of government led America.
America’s founding presidents conceived of the government as an institution that would protect mans’ rights: the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is “to secure these rights,” not provide health care or serve as custodians of the Earth, that “governments are instituted amongst men”. The government, in the view of men such as Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, should be an institutionalized policeman and judge, not an institutionalized social worker and gardener. These men proclaimed the purpose of government to protect man’s rights, not to run charities or manage retirement funds.
They understood that if the government endeavored to do anything besides protect its citizens’ rights, such as provide health care or worker’s insurance, it would have to violate the rights of some in order to give those products to others.
For example, if the government undertakes to provide insurance to workers, it must obtain the funds to do so from the pockets of others and thereby violate their right to the fruits of their labor. If it promises health care to the elderly, it must ensure, ultimately through regulatory force, that doctors treat them, thereby violating the rights of those doctors to engage in business with whom they choose. If the government guarantees any material good or service produced by the effort of another human being, it must violate the rights of that human being and force him to forfeit what he has produced to others, making him a slave. Either the government protects rights, or it pursues some other goal and thereby violates them.
So what vision of government do we, as Americans, endorse today?
The answer depends on our view of human nature. Do we believe, as our Founders did, that man is a rational animal, capable of achieving his values through his own thought and effort? Or do we believe that man is helpless, in need of a governmental overseer to decide what is best for him? Do we believe that the individual is morally entitled to the fruits of his labor? Or do we believe that he has a duty to sacrifice to his neighbor, a duty that Uncle Sam can force him to practice? Is our time and property-i.e. our life-properly our own by inalienable right, or can the government force us into service?
These are the questions that we as Americans must examine, ponder, and answer, if we value liberty and want to understand why our politicians keep trying to one-up each other in their social and environmental programs. The fundamental issue of the day is not whether we should pragmatically support or oppose a particular plan of Obama’s or whether John McCain would have been any better in office. The fundamental issue is our conception of the proper role of government and our justification for that conception.
To accept and endorse the likes of Jefferson, Adams, and Madison is to accept and endorse an underlying view of government as the protector of individual rights. It is to uphold a view of man as a being capable of achieving his own happiness through his own effort.
In contrast, to accept and endorse the likes of Roosevelt, Bush, and Obama is to accept and endorse an underlying view of government that rejects America’s founding values of individual rights and sacrifices them to governmental ‘caretaking’. It is to surrender to a view of man as a helpless being, incapable by himself of achieving his own values and happiness. And it is to concede that noble vision of our Founders as just an impotent, faded memory.
The Undercurrent is a magazine distributed at college campuses and communities across the country. We release a print edition once per semester, and in the interim, regularly post additional articles, blog entries, and campus media responses reports to our website.
The Undercurrent's cultural commentary is based on Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism. Objectivism, which animates Ayn Rand's fiction, is a systematic philosophy of life. It holds that the universe is orderly and comprehensible, that man survives by reason, that his life and happiness comprise his highest moral purpose, and that he flourishes only in a society that protects his individual rights.
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