Column on America Divided

America Divided

Tibor R. Machan

For
all its existence America has been torn between two political
positions.  Originally the two were represented, mostly, by Alexander
Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, although neither was a simple partisan of
the positions at issue here.

Hamilton
had been a supporter of the revolution but also quite sympathetic to
big government, even to monarchy in the British style (not absolute but
relatively limited).  Jefferson, in contrast, supported the polity
implied by the Declaration of Independence (which he largely authored),
although he was no libertarian, not even like Thomas Paine who came
quite close.

The
two positions differ mainly on how much a country should entrust its
ideals to government.  The Founders general thought that once the king
has been deposed, one could live with government comfortably enough,
although Jefferson had uttered some sentiments that suggest he was
beginning to find government altogether problematic.  “That government
is best that governs least” shows no enthusiasm for even limited
government, the sort one associates with the classical liberal
tradition, although the logical implications of the principles Jefferson
included in the Declaration, mostly derived from John Locke, were
pretty close to the libertarian minarchist theory, the kind of
government that is committed to nothing more than the protection of the
citizens’ basic rights to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness and
whatever is consistent with these (mostly the right to do anything
that’s peaceful).  So this faction of America’s political legacy does
not so much support a small as a limited scope type government.  (Who
can tell ahead of time how large an organization devoted to securing our
rights would have to be to get its job done!?)

The
second position, which one may fruitfully associate with Hamilton, is
far more trusting of government, at least of the democratic or
representative kind.  In any case, this faction of the American
political tradition eventually gave rise to the idea that government
must be proactive, support various undertakings that the citizens may
not take up themselves.  So such institutions as banking would be nearly
like they had been in Europe, if not state run than at least heavily
supervised and regulated by the state.  This is the approach that in
time gave rise to central banking, the Federal Reserve Bank.  It is also
the approach that ended up more generally distrusting the capacity of
the citizenry to address many of the problems that arise in a society.
 Education, for instance, would be entrusted to government, as would the
protection of wildlife, to mention only two spheres that have become
nearly completely a matter of public administration.  And it is also
this kind of political economic thinking that would in time lead to the
invention of positive rights or entitlements, which is certainly not
part of the Lockean view or follow the ideas of the Declaration.  (BTW,
the general welfare does not imply entitlements, only the need to
protect all citizens’ rights to pursue their welfare individually or
corporately.)

In
our own time this divide has turned into something almost fundamental
and more destructive, than even the one about preservation of the union.
 We now see many politicians and nearly the entire intellectual
community–media editors, educators at all levels of school and
especially in the social sciences and humanities (excepting
economists)–siding with the view that government must have a large
scope of influence and authority in the country, with only few features
left to the private and personal sphere.  Having been supplied with
political ideas mainly from Europe for the last 150 years, the influence
of the classical liberals began to abate a good deal.  As in Europe, so
in erudite America, most folks believe government must be a supplier of
goods and services, not merely the protector of rights.  As if they
came to believe that referees at a game should become and more more
involved in playing it rather than making sure the players obey the
rules.

One
matter needs to be kept in mind in order to find a silver lining in
these developments.  This is that the governmental habit which had been
cultivated for centuries nearly everywhere, is difficult to break.  But
not impossible.  In time it may just happen and right now there appears
to be some hope on the horizon that many Americans are doing exactly
that (though not as consistently as they should).

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