Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Origin of America’s Vision Statement

America is the great experiment. The purpose of the Libertarian Party has always been to continue the work begun by our Founders. Our Founders knew that they did not have all of the answers. We might view them as heroic figures grounded in certainties, but they were not. They were real people, heir to human weaknesses. They worried. They doubted. They struggled with each point in a cultural atmosphere fraught with problems of monumental proportions. Slavery divided them along with culturally based values that made even their understanding of what freedom is a complex of questions and misunderstandings.

The representative Republic they adopted as their model was the most radical form of government then imagined by the mind of Man. They accepted the imperfections of which they were aware and moved on to address other issues, leaving for future generations further consideration of what the best institutional forms might be to accomplish individual liberty.

It was an astonishing accomplishment, unprecedented in world history. Instead of continuing the use of already existing practices and forms they adopted new ways of handling human institutions for the governance of human action.

This accomplishment is even more astonishing when we remember that they did so without the tools of understanding created by humankind in the past 200 years.

They did not understand economics as a discipline with mathematically based principles. Adam Smith first published Wealth of Nations in 1776. They did not understand that human action itself laid on a base of biological reality. Science had not revealed to them the enormity of what they did not know about the origins of their species, their religious institutions, the nature of the world around them and the dynamics of human value exchange. Their view of biology had been originated in the misty past and still accepted the view that babies were the product of men; tiny hommoculi that embedded themselves in the womb of woman. This was the justification for denying women any rights over their own children. Ours is not the first generation to be confronted by the distortative effects of fraudulent science.

Fish do not question water. They did not question the culture that both drew them together and divided them.

Slavery was an issue that they would leave on the table. Women’s rights remained a cultural deviation, invisible to their political dialogue.

Their lack of understanding was enormous. Their accomplishment was therefore the greater.

These variations in understanding essential aspects of individual rights resulted in the Civil War and linger with us today. Now we have created other tools for understanding the content of the world; its laws of genetics, physics and mathematics. The nature of reality daily grows more visible through disciplines such as anthropology, sociology and interdisciplinary studies such as that which has grown out of the interface of law and economics, law and biology.

The Founders were people uneasy with the force and threat represented by centralized government. They had only a limited number of examples of institutions for governance. These were drawn from the past. They did not choose a representative republic and the democratic process without strong reservations. They did not anoint it as a form of government. They decided to try it out. Human forms and institutions serve us. We do not serve them.

Their successors made the mistake of accepting the Constitution and its forms as the final word, to be modified but not substantially changed. It became instead of a working document for the accomplishment of individual freedom holy writ handed down from minds wiser and more informed. This was a mistake founded in the respect accorded our Founders, but it was a mistake, nonetheless.

Time has also revealed to us the problems inherent in the institutions of governance that they could never imagine. The power and intrusiveness of government as it is today would have been stranger to them than our nation’s space program.

The shape of our institutions today and the habits of mind those institutions express, are becoming the shape of the future. What those institutions say right now is not good for freedom. We therefore need to change our institutions so that they are freedom based and assume the efficacy of individualist answers. When that happens we will be on the road to demonstrating to Americans, and therefore the world, that freedom is the best, the only choice for creating a compassionate, and inclusive future.

We need to understand where we came from, how the vision of individualism got off track so that we can formulate a strategy that will put us where we need to be.

Where we have been means we have to examine the philosophical background against which the Revolution was fought.

Is there a single vision for the meaning of the words liberty and equality now, 200 years after that war ended? What did liberty and equality mean to colonial Americans?

The original American colonists were, Puritan, Quaker, Chesapeake (the second and third sons of English aristocracy) and Scots-Irish. Others were present, including Huguenots, Catholics, Irish, German and some of everything imaginable, but these are the four major groupings at the time the war began. It was their distinct understandings of liberty that forged our original vision for freedom and equality.

Both Puritans and Quakers approached the question of liberty from a spiritual viewpoint. The individual, man and woman, was spiritually distinct, acting through freewill. This understanding acted to modify their cultural practices. Quaker women were free to preach and occupy leadership roles in the Quaker world. Puritan women owned and controlled property. Voting in many parts of New England was property based and not limited by gender.

Their migration to the New World was motivated by spiritual needs.

Their model for liberty resided inside the individual person. The Revolution was the political expression for their spiritual beliefs.

The Chesapeakes and Scots-Irish had different models derived from their very different cultural histories. These immigrants wanted to establish for themselves a life style that would shortly come under fire in England.

The second and third sons of English aristocracy transplanted the estate system from England. It was familiar, desirable, and comfortable. It was highly hierarchial in practice requiring the labor of many subordinate individuals to make it profitable. In England, these workers had been serfs. In the Old Dominion and later throughout the Old South, these laborers would be black slaves.

For these barons of the New World, liberty was a franchise limited to a few land owners who were born to their positions. The idea of freedom trickled in with a diverse population of emigrants who forged the cooperative practices that allowed them to coexist while remaining distinct and separate. The colonies were a mixing place for people and ideas that allowed them to experiment with variations on already existing institutional models for governance and so changed their perceptions of individual autonomy. Thus the need to accommodate the continuing influx of emigrants provided the motivation to innovate. Ideas regarding the nature of human liberty and equality provided cognitive models for change.

The Scots-Irish themselves were an intensely tribal people who had withstood generations of border warfare against the English. The rights of the individual were subsumed and subordinated to the need of the clan. Their folk ways and their practices reflected this. The generations after their settlement transmuted their understanding of liberty and equality.

The concepts freedom and equality were changing. The Old Dominion was to give birth to a variety of understandings on this question. These transmuted ideals shared a new vision of freedom.

All of these traditions for freedom and equality came together in the Declaration of Independence, providing the vision statement that remains alive with us today. The underlying differences remain with us, unseen, but active. These differences are one of the causes for the freedom movement’s failure to arrive at a consensus on means and direction.

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