Who Are We?

“We the people,” begins our venerated Constitution.  But who are we?  In this Fourth of July rumination, let me suggest two paradigms, by which the meaning of “we the people” is typically considered.

One: Individualism

The founding fathers of the country were influenced by many writers and thinkers, of course, and one idea that had currency at the time was that of the social contract, articulated by thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jeanne-Jacques Rousseau.  The idea was that the state acquired only such rights over its citizens as were delegated to it by the people.  The state was thus subordinate to the people, and the people, though individuals, spoke to the state through republican representation.  The point was to maximize personal freedom; to minimize government restraint on that freedom.

This is reflected in the Declaration of Independence, as well as the Constitution.  After specifying that all men have certain unalienable rights–and that those rights are from their Creator and not from government–the Declaration specifies that the purpose of government is to secure those rights, and that government derives its powers “from the consent of the governed.”

Inherent in this view of the relationship between government and governed was that the state was to be kept at arms-length, so to speak, from the people.  “This far and no further,” might be a way to describe it.  The Constitution was generated with the primary purpose of restraining the state, and preserving the freedom of individuals.  This social contract idea, and its embodiment in the founding of our country, presupposes a relationship between government and governed which is guarded, if not simply adverse.

This was good, in that the relationship served to protect individual rights.  Good in that it advanced the interests of pluralism, so that individuals could remain individuals:  worshipping and living as they chose.  This was freedom:  The exercise of rights that pre-existed the government, and so were not the government’s to give or withdraw.

There are negatives to this paradigm, too.  In our age, non-state restrictions such as those individually adopted because of religious belief are eased or dispensed with altogether.  As a result, this individualism becomes a kind of hyper-autonomy, in which there is very little shared sense of morality.  We are each a law unto ourselves.  Because we don’t have a shared basis for self-governance, we tend to allow the state to step in to fill the vacuum, thus allowing these first principles to be eroded.

Two: Collectivism

Another way of thinking of “we the people” is that we are one cohesive people seeking to speak with one mind and therefore one voice.  Rather than regarding the government as limited to those matters necessarily collective in nature, such as national defense, we think and act collectively, and look to the government as the vehicle for that collective action.  We expect the government to speak, with its one voice, for all of us together.  The people collectively supply the voice’s content, and it is voiced through a combination of managerial regulations of the government, and through “politically correct” social norms.

The state is not at all adversarial to individuals, in this paradigm, because the thinking is to be collective, and not individual.  This is not thought to be an alarming state of affairs, however, because the people are one, and the one is reflected by the floating legal principles of the government.  There is no entity with which to have the adversary relationship.

In this paradigm, people and associations of people use sharp elbows against each other to position their ideas into the socially accepted range of discussion, and into law.  We are enemies of each other, not of the government.  The government is not thought to be dangerous, because it is “we the people,” indistinct from us.

In fact, under this paradigm, the government is hardly considered a distinct entity at all.  This is a Marxist point of view in at least this respect:  Far from being considered dangerous, the government is believed to be so harmless that it may in time wither away altogether, as people speak with greater and greater unanimity.

The obvious disadvantage to this paradigm is that individual belief is impaired.  It must relent before the voice of the people.  Lest you think this is far-fetched, this is precisely the object of 20th-century philosophers like John Dewey and John Rawls (both mentioned here) the latter of whom championed “Public Reason,” a bracketing of public discourse around only the “reasonable” elements of comprehensive world views.  Use your imagination as to who decides what is “reasonable.”  This is basically political correctness, a phenomenon which elicits fear and loathing among individualists.

Beliefs About Ultimate Reality

The first amendment to the Constitution is a restriction on the power of the state that is intended to preserve religious freedom from government encroachments on that freedom.  Now it is being used for the opposite purpose:  to sanitize government activity from any religious perspective.

Religions exist to expound beliefs about ultimate reality.  Atheism is also a belief about ultimate reality.  But atheism is the only belief about ultimate reality that is always acceptable in anything the government touches, because, even though it is just as much a metaphysical belief about ultimate reality, it is not “religion.”

Infiltration of Government

This truth still wouldn’t unduly impinge on religious freedom, if government were constrained as originally envisioned.  If the individualist paradigm were operative, such that most of our activity were not touched by government, then religious freedom (and other freedoms) could flourish.

But what if government becomes a direct or indirect participant in every endeavor of citizens?  In that case–inevitable under the collectivist paradigm–the government chases out freedom everywhere it invades.  And in case it’s not obvious what that looks like, here are some examples of that infiltration of government into the formerly free spheres of social interaction.

There is bureaucratic regulation, of course, but this phrase does not go nearly far enough in explaining the degree to which we now think of regulation as normal, and absence of regulation as suspect.  Whenever something seems to go wrong, from our perspective, in any business or industry, we tend to inquire whether it is properly “regulated.”  We even think it normal that private business be shut down altogether, until such time as it is regulated.  And regulated by whom?  The government, of course.  In this way the collective restricts individual initiative.

The states united as the United States of America were at their inception sovereign.  We had a civil war to resolve what deference those sovereign states must give to the federal collective.  The result is this.  Though we call each state “sovereign,” we also call the United States sovereign.  This is two levels of government, not just one.  We threw off a king, but embraced both a duke and a baron, in his stead.  Not only that, but local governments pick up such limitations on freedom as the state or the feds overlook.  Uncle Sam may not presume to tell you what trash pick-up service you must use, but your city or county will.

It is hard to overstate the degree to which we think it automatic that private initiatives proceed at the permit of government overseers.  We have marriage “licenses” and business “licenses” and driver’s “licenses” and all manner of permit requirements for business–grants of permission by government to undertake private matters.  We have come to think of these matters as rights bestowed by the government.  That is the opposite of the first principles of our founding.  What the government bestows, it can withdraw.

Here’s one little example.  Why are we told over and over that driving is a privilege?  Obeying the rules of the road is important, but if you pay your taxes (for the roads) and you operate your vehicle correctly, why is the government empowered to withhold permission?  This may seem a trivial matter, because the “license” is routinely issued, and licensing is related to public safety.  But it’s not trivial when we allow the power to be misused.  In the case of driver’s licenses, we take no notice when they’re revoked for something completely unrelated to driving, like failing to pay child support.  It should be obvious that the power to withdraw these various permits is used coercively.  But we don’t blink an eye, so inured are we to the erosion of first principles.

Why do we think it’s normal to report to the government details of our private financial life, in the process of paying our taxes?  Why is our tax burden dependent on specific spending decisions we make?  The obvious reason is so that government can incentivize this decision and disincentivize that one, but why should it be doing that?  We don’t even pause and think it abnormal that we should be manipulated in this way.  When was the last time anyone paused and considered why private businesses are required to enforce laws restricting individuals in their employ, such as with immigration and tax collection?  Why do we have advertising paid for by government entities with our tax dollars, informing us of government services?  Why do taxpayers have to pay twice, if they choose to send their child for education somewhere other than government schools?  Why does it seem normal to us that businesses are given tax breaks as incentives to move into a community?  Why are “public/private partnerships” not a contradiction in terms?

Religious Freedom

The answer to all these questions is that we have evolved to a state of complacency about our relationship to government, and have internalized the notion that “we the people” should act collectively about more and  more decisions in our lives; and further, that the only means of acting collectively is to act through government.  The collectivist paradigm is in conflict with the founding principles of this country, and the result is a gradual eradication of freedom.  This includes–perhaps includes especially–religious freedom.

The expansion of our government is the single greatest threat to our religious freedom.  The habit of thinking collectively and then reflexively making that collective thinking law is a result of the collectivist paradigm.  As the collectivist mentality feeds government, government feeds the collectivist mentality.  Day by day, it imprisons the minds of formerly free Americans.

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