July 3, 2006 -- On July 4, we celebrate the creation of the United States of America. Our birth certificate, the Declaration of Independence, reads, "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal." It states that we're each endowed with "certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." It concludes that "to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed."
Most Americans give lip service to these sentiments. But how many of us understand what these words really mean? Equality? Rights? Americans in spirit must hold these principles in their hearts and minds, and use them as guides in society. So it's appropriate to take a few minutes to reflect on what our Founders meant when they created the opportunity for this annual occasion of families, friends, picnics, and fireworks.
Let's start with the concept of equality. The Founders understood that equality does not mean that we're identical in any of our many particulars. In fact, "equality" seems a paradoxical term to use, since a guiding principle of those Founders was individualism. See for a moment what they saw. Look around you. Everyone you know is different from everybody else. We all look different. We're male and female, blond and redhead, tall and short. We have different capacities, temperaments, likes, dislikes, goals, and aspirations. So where is this equality?
A hint is found in the fact that the most important things that distinguish us from one another are not accidents of birth. As philosopher Ayn Rand put it, "As man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul."
Therein we find our real equality. We each have a free will and rational capacity to direct and take charge of our own lives. We are all creators. We can and must produce the means for our physical survival—we grow food; build houses; drill oil wells; manufacture trains, planes and automobiles; write novels, poems, screenplays, and business plans; discover cures for diseases and the secrets of the universe. But our most important creations are our moral characters and intellectual habits. These allow us to do all those other things. As writer William Ernest Henley put it in his poem “Invictus,” "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul."
Sure, some might do better in certain areas and pursuits than others. But all of us are equally human, equally dependent on our choice to think and to reason in order to live and flourish.
That brings us to the concept of rights. We all potentially benefit in society with others. As we all pursue our self-interest to the best of our abilities, we enrich, entertain, educate, enlighten, and inspire one another as well. But this will only be the case if we respect the equal rights of others—that is, if we deal with them based on mutual consent.
The Founders really meant it when they said "the pursuit of happiness." You do not, for example, have the "right" to a house that might make you happy. That would entail violating the equal rights of others, forcing someone else to turn over their house to you, to build one for you, or to pay for one for you. But you are at liberty to earn the money to buy a house by producing goods and services and trading them with others.
That brings us to government. The Founders were quite clear that governments are supposed to protect those equal liberties. And if you look around, you see governments have strayed far from this purpose because too many Americans have forgotten the true meanings of "equality" and "rights."
So as you enjoy yourself on Independence Day, look around at your friends and neighbors. Remember that you find your equality with them in the fact that you are all human beings, unique individuals with your own wills, purposes, and wonderful possibilities. And remember that you should all have liberty to live your lives as you see fit. And remember that if you want to continue to enjoy those liberties, you had better understand the need to rein in the government and return it to the limited purpose of those foresighted Founders.