July 4, 2008 -- July 4, the anniversary of the birth of the United States, is a good time to remember the vision of this country. But to say, “remember” contains the possible implication that we are recalling with pleasant nostalgia some past experience or loved one long gone. Otherwise we might better say, “reminding ourselves” of what is present, extant, and wonderful—something we are foolishly neglecting.
The American vision was stated in the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson and our Founders tell us, “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.”
The goal of the American regime was to stay out of our way and to ensure that we stay out of each other’s way unless we find common cause with one another based on mutual consent. That is to say, the purpose of government is to protect our individual rights.
And the American vision is also found in the story of individuals building their own lives. Millions of immigrants have come to America, facing a different culture, language, or other external factors alien to them. But they sought to be part of a welcomed difference: a country in which they had the freedom and opportunity to pursue their individual dreams.
The happy consequence of such individual pursuit of happiness has been a great nation. America has grown from a small, underdeveloped country of about three million to a country of 300 million that is the richest on earth and in history.
But we have seen our individual liberties—the center of the American vision—eroded over the years and decades. A principal reason is that the American morality of individualism has been eroded.
We have seen our individual liberties—the center of the American vision—eroded over the years and decades.
True individualists take pride in their own efforts and achievements. They neither expect nor want others to live for them nor are they willing to throw away their own dreams in order to live for others. They would look upon as spiritually ugly rather than admirable the lives of those who would damn themselves to unhappiness and misery for the sake of others.
Yet it is on this morality of self-sacrifice that much politics today is based. Politicians have been creating with their welfare-state and regulatory policies a class of whiners who cry that society—read their fellow citizens—owe them a living or at least enough money to buy food, pay the rent, send the kids to school, purchase a home or healthcare. And they have tried to guilt-trip the producers who will need to foot the bill into allowing themselves to be fleeced like sheep to help others.
So yes, the vision of what is great in America has been tarnished.
But to terribly mix metaphors, the American house might be a bit rundown, it might be infested with political termites, but its foundations are still sound and it is still a marvelous mansion in which to live. Today millions of Americans still love their lives, love their work, love those dear to them and, therefore, love their freedom.
So on July 4 we can remember back when our lives were less at the mercy of government. But we can also remind ourselves of the freedoms that we still have and just how we’ve used those freedoms to benefit our own lives. We are not simply remembering our past, bygone glories but are pausing to reflect on something profoundly beautiful right before our eyes. But remembering our lost liberties will impel us to seek to bring them back, to make them real, here and now, so that we can remind ourselves on future July 4ths of how good we have it.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.