The Intent of Forefathers

July 3, 2014

Today’s NYT describes an interesting finding by Professor Danielle Allen, in regard to a key section of the US Declaration of Independence. Here is how the section has been transcribed in the past:

“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….”

Professor Allen argues that the phrase ending with Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness is not properly interpreted as being followed with a period. She interprets that mark to be just an ink spot on the original document. The impact of removing it would be to no longer hold those goals to be higher than the accompanying role of Government in assuring those goals.

While this debate doesn’t change anything, it is interesting and relevant in a political sense. Why? Because both sides of our divided body politic seek to justify their positions by going back to such founding documents as the Declaration and the Constitution.

On the Right, government is argued to be intrusive to Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Anything that can be done to reduce government is a good thing. Professor Allen argues that’s not what it said or implied, if the period is removed. But the Right feels taxes should be reduced. Regulations should be reduced. Everyone should ideally be free to live his/her life as he/she wishes, apparently without consideration to the ways in which our individual lives impact others negatively, or could impact others positively if we should join together for some common good.
As Margaret Thatcher said, there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals (sic). Many of the winners on the Right, feel their success is totally meritocratic.

On the Left, there is strong recognition that there is a solid role of properly elected government to assure the greater good from a collective point of view. The Left generally feels there are privileged and there are underprivileged. Some of the underprivileged may be lazy, as are some of the beneficiaries of inherited wealth. But most of the underprivileged would have substantially better lives if they had the parentage, skin color, religion or other attributes of the privileged. Most on the left endorse collectivism, which means government, with all its flaws–because it is the only mechanism to assure a reasonable degree of justice and fairness–to assure that “all men are created equal” is furthered by assuring reasonably equal opportunity for all.

Inequality is one of the most dangerous threats to our sustainability. Its manifestations are not only economic, but also religious, gender based, ethnicity and nationality based, and more.

I know that my accomplishment, modest as it is, and as hard as it was to attain, would likely not have been possible for me had I not been born in the US, of good although poor parents, of white caucasian skin color and of protestant faith, with an uncle who was able to get summer jobs for me and another uncle who was able to introduce me to a few people of influence who then elected to recommend me for a scholarship to a good University. I know it wasn’t all just my hard work or talent, and I know that we must collect together in government and other ways to level the playing field.

And I recommend we stop defending our biases by trying to find comfort in the documents of origin in our wonderful country, but rather to face and deal with the realities of what our country has come to, and the risks ahead for future generations.

Link ro the NYT article:

One thought on “The Intent of Forefathers

  1. Anonymous says:

    I just read your editorial in the S.F. Chronicle and was very impressed. I think one of the reasons you were able to repent is that you come from the working class. Also, I suspect your parents were somewhat unusually decent people – you write like you have good character.
    I would take issue with your characterization of the Left in the above post, though it is broadly true for mainstream progressives. I could probably be labeled a “radical left libertarian”; I fit “radical left” because I want a radically more egalitarian society, “libertarian” because I do NOT see more government as the best way to do this. I'm in favor of enabling/promoting worker-owned/self-managed enterprises, community development credit unions, and permanently affordable home ownership. You may be interested in my forthcoming book. Trying to convince the wealthy (as per your previous post) is mostly a waste of time, though any capitalists willing to co-exist with free working people should be left alone. The deep pathology of capitalism is INHERENT in it and incurable. Capitalism, however, should NOT be confused with free enterprise, as the term “free enterprise” says nothing about the class-nature of the enterprises in question.
    John Burnett


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