A holiday that celebrates a nation founded on the right ideals

July 8, 2013

By Steven Greenhut

SACRAMENTO — Some fundamentalist Christians take the “Greatest Story Ever Told” and make it so unpalatable that it sends seekers running in the other direction. Likewise, some of my fellow liberty lovers take the greatest political and economic system ever devised and make it sound so parsimonious that it causes people run for some government agency.

Last week, on Independence Day, we celebrated the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, but what we really were celebrating was the unique vision upon which our society was founded, even if it isn’t always “sold” to the public in an easily understood and appealing way.

There are two basic visions of society. In the one that dominated human societies throughout most of history, a small group of people impose their will on everyone else by the threat of violence. Submit or be imprisoned, re-educated, killed or expelled. The leaders have unlimited and ultimate authority, although such governments vary by degree of awfulness. Not every authoritarian system is run by Khmer Rouges or Visigoths.

In the other vision, all people — by the nature of their birth — have fundamental rights. The government’s only job is to protect those rights. The State is designed to serve as a referee to assure that people don’t rob, defraud or otherwise harm others; to sort out the inevitable disputes that result given the human condition; and perhaps to provide some services (i.e., infrastructure) not easily provided by the private sector.

Flawed, but still very much worth celebrating

Those who are unduly critical of American society are missing the key point. Of course, the founding fathers were hypocritical and human. Of course, our society falls short of its ideals. Of course, we no longer are really free. Try to defy the government’s edicts and you will feel no safer than Edward Snowden, the asylum-seeking (Venezuela or Russia, anyone?) former defense contractor who had leaked embarrassing documents about NSA spying programs.

But looking at the course of human history, it has been the rarest society that has tried to follow the second course. Why does the United States remain among the most prosperous and harmonious nations on Earth? It’s not because of the IRS, Obamacare, the FBI or any other government agency or program. It’s because of the free-market system, combined with a political system that checks and balances the power of the authorities. This is such a sure-fire creator of wealth and happiness that we do well even running on its fumes.

freedom.signThat’s worth celebrating, even though this system’s successes are not enough for those many people who turn to that thing called government to give them whatever it is they want. But, as the old saying goes, any government big enough to give you whatever you want also is big enough to take away everything you’ve got.

Critics of the free market argue that it’s based on greed, but let’s compare, on a personal level, how markets and the government work. The public school system, for instance, is a government-funded and controlled monopoly. Let’s say your kids are in terrible schools and you want them to be taught somewhere else.

You have three basic choices: Pay a second tuition (you’ve already paid the first one through your taxes) and send them to a private school. Move to another community with a better school district. Spend your time ousting the current school board, overcoming well-funded union opposition and electing new members who might hire better administrators. That could consume your entire life and there’s virtually no chance of success.

Let’s say the schools operated in a market system. The fix is simple. You would shop around for better schools and possibly have the problem solved by the weekend. If you don’t like what General Motors offers in its car product, you don’t devote yourself to changing the company’s board and reviving its product line. You go to the auto mall and buy a Dodge or a Toyota.

Democracy and free markets: making distinctions

Free markets are about voluntary exchange. You and I negotiate over the price of things. If we don’t agree on terms, we part ways as friends or perhaps enemies, but we can’t force the other person to submit to our terms or else we end up in prison.

I’m ruminating about markets and not about “democracy.” Democracy probably is a better way of electing leaders than by hereditary monarchy or military junta, but it refers only to the way that leaders come to power. I would rather live under a king in a system with the rule of law and due process than in a democracy where the majority was keen on the Muslim Brotherhood.

We should resolve to explain the importance of our freedoms to our friends and neighbors in a kind and personal way. Free societies are prosperous, fair and humane. That’s what was worth celebrating last week amid the fireworks and parades.

Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Write to him at [email protected].


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  1. Steve Mehlman
    Steve Mehlman 8 July, 2013, 08:26

    Check out the op-ed column in the July 4th Los Angeles Times by David Lefer, author of “The Founding Conservatives: How a Group of Unsung Heroes Saved the American Revolution.” http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-lefer-conservatives-founders-america-20130704,0,5481588.story

    We hear a lot from the Tea Party and its supporters that America needs to go back to its “roots”. But as Lefer points out, if our founders had acted in the same way as the Tea Party–no compromise, no cooperation, anyone who is willing to work across the aisle to help solve our nation’s problems is a traitor or RINO, etc.–we may never have had our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. These sacred documents were the result of cooperation and compromise among people with widely different points of view.

    As Mr. Lefer rightly concludes: “On Independence Day, it is vital for modern conservatives to remember how their forebears in 1776 put patriotism before politics and compromised for the good of the nation.”

    We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude for that.

    Reply this comment
  2. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 8 July, 2013, 10:18

    Always someone else’s fault, right Steve? If only those troglodyte Tea Partiers would compromise with our progressive vision, gee , what a swell place this would be.

    Answer me this, Stevo-O…..what part of Big Government are you willing to downsize as part of YOUR compromise?

    I thought so.

    You prove once again – Teddy and his sock puppets are a sideshow, a collection of silly clowns. You are the real worry. What a vile sack of protoplasm you are.

    Reply this comment
  3. Rex the Wonderdog!
    Rex the Wonderdog! 8 July, 2013, 10:25

    Steve Mehlman – you’re a walking, talking, (and) writing mouth piece for the troughers~!!!!!

    We still luv ya though!

    Reply this comment
  4. Steele, Ted, When only the very best will do!
    Steele, Ted, When only the very best will do! 8 July, 2013, 13:36

    Steve’s right as usual— no doubt these ultra right dullards have not read the Adams biography by McCullogh. These extreme radicals priofess to like the Constitution but usually no nothing about it and the meeting of the minds that created it.

    Reply this comment
  5. Steve Mehlman
    Steve Mehlman 8 July, 2013, 16:50

    jimmydeeoc, as usual, asks a question and then refuses to let me answer it.

    I’d downsize several government agencies, starting with Defense (OMG!) Commerce, Treasury, and HHS. I’d conduct a thorough audit of tax breaks to determine which ones are actually helping meet national goals, like job creation. That’s just a start for me, Jimmy. But I’d like to hear: What would YOU compromise?

    Rexie, as usual, completely misses the point that these historical FACTS were about how CONSERVATIVES did great things for the country. But don’t let the facts get in the way when you have a chance to insult someone who doesn’t agree with you.

    BTW, I’m not familiar with the term “troughers”. I assume it refers to Wall Street. LOL.

    Reply this comment
  6. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 8 July, 2013, 17:04

    I’d downsize several government agencies, starting with Defense (OMG!) Commerce, Treasury, and HHS.

    Steve-o……I will stand with you on each and every one. How’s that for compromise? Can we also axe Education and knee-cap the Farm Bill? LOL

    When you got to “national goals”, though, it sounds like you reverted back to your Bolshevikian origins, Five Year plans and all. “National goals” always wind up becoming “special interest goals”. They fail. How about if we get rid of ALL the tax breaks, abolish the IRS and work some sort of sales/VAT instead?

    What else you want?

    Reply this comment
  7. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 8 July, 2013, 17:12

    On the other hand, all our talk about downsizing is all moot. Like peeing in the ocean. The recent developments coming out about the “Affordable” Care Act assures eventual national bankruptcy.

    You want “doom”, Teddy, my son? There it is. Prove me wrong.

    Reply this comment
  8. Steve Mehlman
    Steve Mehlman 8 July, 2013, 17:54

    I said downsize, not axe, Jimbo. There you go, off the deep end again.

    And gee, you don’t think job creation should be a “national goal”? What a surprise. You Reeps have been screaming about that one for years. Of course, I understand that it might be hard for you to reconcile job creation with giving big corporations billions in tax breaks to take American jobs overseas.

    Reply this comment
  9. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 8 July, 2013, 18:53

    Steve – I said axe the Dept. of Ed. I did not suggest axing DoD or the others you initially suggested.

    There you go, not taking time to comprehend what is written and ascribing anarchic tendencies to anyone who pushes back against the unsustainable growth in Big Government again.

    Reply this comment
  10. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 8 July, 2013, 19:08

    But Steverino…I thought carbon-cutting was our national goal? Or was that “support of human rights”? Universal health care? So many “national goals”, I get confused. But special interests sure don’t. Big Business and Big Labor and Big Environment know just where to position themselves in support of “national goals”.

    “National goals” are insipid. The last one that had any merit was in the early 40s. And then only because our very survival was at stake.

    Reply this comment
  11. Rex the Wonderdog!
    Rex the Wonderdog! 8 July, 2013, 23:47

    BTW, I’m not familiar with the term “troughers”. I assume it refers to Wall Street. LOL.
    #1- “troughers” refers to ANYONE scamming the poor and middle class, and yes, it applies to BOTH public employee scammers AND Wall Street scammers, but I, like most people today in the poor and middle class, see that there is little difference between public employees and Wall Street hustlers….

    Reply this comment
  12. Queeg
    Queeg 9 July, 2013, 09:28

    Bagdad Steve at it again…..how can you look in the mirror?

    Reply this comment

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