Archive | July 4, 2007

Our Omnipotent Government

Another example for the Euthyphro file: an envelope of puffery from Discover magazine includes a bookmark with fifteen little-known facts. Here are two of them:

8. No American has died of old age since 1951.

9. That was the year the government eliminated old age as a category on death certificates 

Truly Thou art great, O State!

But … why not eliminate all causes of death while Thou’rt at it?

Just Another Brick in the Wall

I’ve always been struck by these two similar yet contrasting images from two of my favourite novelist-philosophers:

Wall Albert indicated a stretch of stone wall beside the road, protecting against a marshy dip of the terrain. … Oh, another historic spot … each had the same story of unarmed hostages facing a German firing squad. Impossible to realize; the blood did not cry from the ground; it was just a stone wall, with houses beyond …. Thought stopped there, against that stone wall. It wasn’t in the least terrible; it was simply so. Restful, rather. It stood. The burghers must have felt it at their backs at the very end, solid and on the whole friendly.
[Isabel Paterson, Never Ask the End (1933)]

Listen, they’re going to take us into the courtyard. … They’re going to stand up in front of us. … There’ll be eight. Someone’ll holler ‘aim!’ and I’ll see eight rifles looking at me. I’ll think how I’d like to get inside the wall, I’ll push against it with my back … with every ounce of strength I have, but the wall will stay, like in a nightmare.
[Jean-Paul Sartre, The Wall (1939)]

Somehow I think my own reaction would be more like Sartre’s than like Paterson’s.

Is the Declaration’s Preamble Irrelevant?

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

The document whose anniversary we celebrate today declares:

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 to 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. …

[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

For most libertarians these words are what Independence Day is all about. But in an LRC editorial Kevin Gutzman takes on a number of what he regards as “myths” about the Fourth of July, and one of these “myths” is that the “chief legacy of the 4th of July is the political philosophy set out in the Declaration of Independence.”

Declaration of Independence Part of the reason for Gutzman’s animus against this view is that “political radicals have argued for understanding the Declaration as a general warrant for government to do anything it likes to forward the idea that ‘all men are created equal.’” I note in passing that this is not a good reason to downplay the Declaration’s political philosophy – because that political philosophy does not authorise governments to do “anything they like” to forward anything. On the contrary, it denies governments any right to act in ways that deviate from the consent of the governed or violate their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and lays it down as a duty to overthrow and destroy any government that does so. The fact that statists have misinterpreted or distorted the Declaration’s words is no objection to those words themselves. (As for the true meaning of “equality” in the Declaration’s sense, see here and here.)

But what, in any case, is Gutzman’s argument against the importance of the Declaration’s political philosophy? Here it is:

The Declaration of Independence was the work of a congress of representatives of state governments. Congressmen were not elected by voters at large, but by state legislatures, and their role (as John Adams, one of them, put it) was more akin to that of ambassadors than to legislators. They had not been empowered to dedicate society to any particular political philosophy, but to declare – as the Virginia legislature had told its congressmen to declare – that the colonies were, “and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” In other words, the Declaration was about states’ rights, not individual rights, and the Congress that adopted it had no power to make it anything else. All the rest of the Declaration was mere rhetorical predicate.

In short, Gutzman’s position is that the Declaration of Independence derived its delegated authority from the state legislatures, and that the statement of principles in its preamble, insofar as it goes beyond that delegation, has no legal standing.

It seems to me that this gets things completely reversed. Under positive law, the state legislatures had no authority to declare independence, because they were established by colonial charters, charters that of course made no provision for independence; and the state legislatures could hardly delegate to the Continental Congress an authority they never possessed. Under natural law, the state legislatures had no authority to do anything, because states, as claimants of territorial monopoly, are inherently illegitimate; and once again, they could not delegate what they did not have. Thus the Declaration’s only source of authority, the only aspect of it that has any legal standing, is its political philosophy. The Declaration did not – because it could not – derive its authority from the state legislatures; they had none to give. The source of authority it does name is the only legitimate political authority it could possibly claim: the Natural Law under which all rational beings are free and equal. (Against my claim that the positive law provided no basis for independence, it might be objected that references to the authority of natural law were often incorporated into positive law itself, as per Blackstone’s famous declaration that under English law anything contrary to natural law is illegal positively as well. But this argument could hardly be used to downplay the importance of the Declaration’s preamble.)

Spooner, as usual, says it best:

Lysander Spooner The governments, then existing in the Colonies, had no constitutional power, as governments, to declare the separation between England and America. On the contrary, those governments, as governments, were organized under charters from, and acknowledged allegiance to, the British Crown. Of course the British king never made it one of the chartered or constitutional powers of those governments, as governments, to absolve the people from their allegiance to himself. So far, therefore, as the Colonial Legislatures acted as revolutionists, they acted only as so many individual revolutionists, and not as constitutional legislatures. … It was, therefore, as individuals, and only as individuals, each acting for himself alone, that they declared that their consent – that is, their individual consent, for each one could consent only for himself – was necessary to the creation or perpetuity of any government that they could rightfully be called on to support. … Thus the whole Revolution turned upon, asserted, and, in theory, established, the right of each and every man, at his discretion, to release himself from the support of the government under which he had lived.

What, then, is the real meaning of the Fourth of July? It is that you – not as a citizen, whether state or federal, but as an individual – are entitled under natural law to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that you need be subject to no authority to which you have not consented; and that it is your right, indeed your duty, to throw off any putative authority – whether you have consented to it or not – if it proves systematically oppressive.

And this idea that all authority rests on the consent of the governed achieves its fullest revolutionary potential when coupled with La Boétie’s insight that all power rests on the consent of the governed also. The revolution will come when enough of us realise our right, duty, and ability to ignore the state.

Declare your independence! Withdraw your consent! Free your mind, and the rest will follow ….

No State, Please, We’re Irish

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Book of Kells Gerard Casey’s discussion of medieval Ireland, which I’ve previously mentioned here, is now available online.

A brief excerpt:

Political theory – and, I suggest, most political practice – is dominated by a myth to the effect that the state is necessary. … Such is the power of being first in the field (‘positioning’ in advertising terms) that the State can literally get away with murder if it can foster the notion that it is legitimate. … Irish society, organised on anarchical principles, lasted for almost 2,500 years! During that time it showed a capacity, vital to any organic and developing system of social organisation, to absorb alien elements and internalise them.

Read the whole thing.

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