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Monday, July 06, 2009

Independence and Empire Don’t Mesh

[T]he kind of relationship between people and government envisioned in the Declaration is rather different from the kind of relationship the proprietors of an empire prefer. In an empire it is a bit awkward to be reminded that the rights – and extensive rights at that – of the individual person exist independently of and both temporally and morally prior to any claims the government might make.

After the stirring language about "certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," the Declaration goes on to posit that "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men." Government’s job, in the eyes of those who signed the document, was to secure rights, which were seen as vulnerable in an ungoverned condition. And if it failed to do the job competently or overstepped its boundaries, it was the right of the people to "alter or abolish it." Just governance stemmed from the consent of the governed, and the founders seemed to have in mind a more active than passive consent. . . .

Human beings are not simply vassals or serfs or slaves or conscripts in the schemes and battles of the powerful, as most had been treated through much of human history, but proud bearers of rights bestowed by "Nature and Nature’s God." Rulers are expected not to govern by whim or arbitrary preference, but in the service of protecting the rights of the people. Government is the servant, not the master.

Or as Jefferson put it in another context, it is not the case that some people are born with saddles on their backs and others are born to ride them. . . .

But servants sometimes turn on their masters, and if the servants are essential to the running of a household or a continent because they know things the putative masters can’t be bothered with – how to fix the plumbing, how to create an economic bubble that benefits one’s friends – they become de facto masters. . . .

An imperial power does not want such "selfish" or self-centered citizens. It wants subjects who can be made to believe that their willingness to serve the designs of their rulers and betters, even to the point of dying in some faraway land whose inhabitants resent their presence, is the most glorious and righteous way they can pursue happiness. It wants people who believe they have consciously assented to the notion that the only alternative to an increasingly strong and intrusive presence of the state in their lives is murderous chaos and the conquest of the country by one of the innumerable foreign hobgoblins our masters keep warning us about. . . .

Truly independent people who take their rights seriously are unlikely simply to respond "Oh, is it my turn?" when their betters tell them it is time to join up and practice utter obedience in a regimented and hierarchical organization designed to maximize the efficient killing of other human beings. People who believe their own version of the good life is not only worthy of respect but has a legitimate right to protection by the powers that be just might ask whether a religious fanatic living in a cave is more of a danger to them than a government determined to treat us all as children unable to make responsible decisions ourselves.

A republic wants citizens vigilant to look out for their own rights and interests. A free society wants people who believe freedom is the crowning glory of the human story. An empire wants subjects, people so propagandized or intimidated that they believe that sacrificing themselves for the greater glory of the ruling class is noble and desirable, and whose relatives are willing to maintain the fiction when their loved ones are killed or maimed in the wars of the imperial rulers.
-- from "Independence, Empire Don’t Mesh" by Alan Bock


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