On July 4th, we celebrate the creation of the United States of America. But today, Americans seem more divided than at any time in recent memory. What is the cause of this disunity, and is there a solution?
Today, America is divided into Red states—those that voted for George W. Bush in 2000—and Blue states—those that went for Al Gore. Republicans and Democrats square off against one another, often with much anger and little civility. Political differences reflect a value and cultural divide between conservatives and liberals, between fans of The Passion of the Christ and those who cheer for Fahrenheit 9/11.
Conservatives see the breaking of community as the result of a drift into moral relativism, which has led to high rates of crime, broken homes, and sexually transmitted diseases. They lament how the welfare state and high taxes punish productivity while promoting indolence. Many conservatives see the solution not only in tax cuts and free markets but also in government censorship or restrictions of words and deeds that seem to promote or embody degeneracy.
Liberals see the breaking of community as the result of inequities in wealth as the country breaks up into the haves and the have-nots. They reject as divisive conservative control of morals and would prefer instead a government that actively helps the poor and protects us all from greedy businessmen, pollution, cigarette smoke, fattening foods, and anything else that might harm us physically or psychologically.
Yet any attempt to unify us that involves a government taking the wealth and freedom of some in the name of helping others is a surefire formula for disunity.
The answer to America's dilemma is found in Thomas Jefferson's stirring words that gave birth to our country: "that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed...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."
This is the best statement possible of America's creed of individualism. America is rightly described as the land of the individual—of individual opportunity, of individual initiative, of individual rights. But what is the philosophic basis of this creed and thus of our country?
First, each one of us has a right to our own lives. We need not answer or justify ourselves to a king or government. We need not seek permission to live as we please from our neighbors, society, or anyone else. Individualism means your life is yours. You own it. You can set your own goals, dream your own dreams, and pursue your own vision of your life.
Second, individualism acknowledges that each of us is capable of running our own life. We each have the power of reason and the free will to use that uniquely human capacity to understand ourselves and the world around us. We each must use that capacity to create the means of our physical survival and spiritual well-being. We each can and must live by our own judgment about what is right for us as individuals. No normal individual—no one!—is inherently too weak or stupid to take care of him or herself. To suggest otherwise is to divide the country into potential masters and slaves.
Third, because each of us has an equal right to our own life, individualism means we must respect the rights of others. That means we must deal with one another based on mutual consent, not by the use of force of fraud. If we fail in some endeavor, we recognize that there is no obligation for others to sacrifice their money, plans, dreams, and lives for our sake. Yet in a country in which individuals respect the rights of their fellows, there will no doubt be friends and family who will return our goodwill by helping us out if necessary. But as we each seek the best within us, it will not benecessary too often.
Fourth, individualism means that the role of government is to protect our equal liberties, not to restrict the freedom or take the money of one in order to benefit another. When government ceases to protect and instead tries to control, manage, or "help," no matter what the intentions, the result will be a country divided into victims and looters. The former are fed guilt to keep them repressed, the latter are fed envy to keep them rapacious.
It is not an oxymoron to find unity in individualism. Men and women who value their own lives and who respect the lives of others will benefit by trading goods and services with others and will be entertained, enlightened, and inspired by the plays, poetry, paintings, movies, music, scientific discoveries, engineering feats, and every other manner of human achievement in others. A society of individuals will be a society worth preserving.
So on July 4th, let us rediscover in the Declaration of Independence the source of our unity in freedom and individualism.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.