Tibor’s Column for the 4th of July 08

Fourth of July and the Public Interest

Tibor R. Machan

Throughout history political thinkers have been doing a lot of fretting
about the public good (or public interest, common good, general welfare,
etc.). Usually they came up with massive plans or enchanting visions.
Plato’s teacher, Socrates, was the great grand daddy contributing to this
tradition, what with his strictly imaginary totalitarian society, the
Republic. (Arguably neither Socrates nor Plato envisioned it as a
blueprint, only as a kind of model to help us remember what’s important.)

Not, however, until the American Founders wrote the Declaration of
Independence did a truly credible official idea of the public good finally
emerge. Others did, of course, educate the Founders, most notably the 17th
century English philosopher John Locke. Curiously, even paradoxically, it
took a bunch of individualists to finally come up with a sensible notion
of the public good!

The reason is not altogether difficult to appreciate. Human beings, while
alike in some important respects, are also very different in other
important ones. That is what a sensible individualism teaches: we are all
human individuals! Accordingly, the message of the Declaration is that the
public good, quite unexpectedly for many people, is something rather
modest. Instead of devising some kind of utopia in which all the problems
people face are dealt with by government–the king, tsar, pharaoh, Caesar,
Sheik, democratically elected group or some other supreme ruler–the
Founders realized that the public good is the competent, diligent,
conscientious protection of everyone’s unalienable individual rights.

Yes, that’s the only bona fide, genuine public good. Certainly what all
too many con artists are foisting upon us as cases of the public good do
not qualify at all–a sports arena, a convention hall, a city pool or golf
course, AIDS or obesity research, the city zoo, and so forth. None of
these amount to true public goods. They are all pretenders, private or
special projects masquerading as something that will benefit us all!

Yet the only thing that qualifies for being a public good is the
protection of the rights everyone has by virtue of his or her human
nature. And, as the Founders so aptly put it, governments are properly
instituted so as to secure these rights, not for any other purpose.

This is why the American political tradition–though, sadly, not American
political history–is associated with the notion of limited government,
government restricted to some few essential tasks. The Bill of Rights
suggested some of the details of this by laying out a few or limited
powers of government, with everything else left for us all to do in the
myriad of voluntary groupings we can organize. And it matters not at all
that Founders and Framers thought all this up back around 1776–it is
still as sound an idea as it was back then. (After all, those who disagree
and want a massive government, intruding on us all in innumerable ways,
are actually advocating something that is much older than the limited
government idea–from the start most political thinkers promoted the idea
of some kind of super state with an absolute or barely limited ruler on
top! Yes, Virginia, it is statists who are reactionaries instead of
radicals or progressives!)

So, the American Founders did propose a solid idea of the public interest,
of everyone’s genuine interest in society, namely, protecting everyone’s
basic rights. That’s a serious task, in need of focus and discipline, and
when it’s abandoned in favor of the multitasking government we actually
suffer a great loss. (Arguably 9/11 would not have happened had the
government kept to its limited job and done it well!) Their idea also
answers an age old question: What really is the public good, what really
promotes the general welfare? It is to make sure everyone is free of
coercion, that’s what.

Some think this isn’t a grand enough vision of government and they are
dead right–it is a grand vision of the potentials and capacities of the
citizens of a country, not of its government! Instead of championing the
all mighty state, which is still so often irrationally worshipped around
the globe, the American idea was–it is now nearly forgotten–that
government is to be scaled down to a manageable scope and size and
citizens, individual human beings and their voluntary associations, are to
be entrusted with the really significant tasks in society.

So on the 4th of July we need to celebrate this magnificent, revolutionary
idea, the confidence in the human individual, not in some version of
bloated government.

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