Rebirth of Reason


Fourth of July and the Public Interest
by Tibor R. Machan

Throughout history political thinkers have been concerned a great deal with
the public good (or public interest, common good, general welfare, etc.).
Usually they came up with massive plans or enchanting visions. Plato’s
teacher, Socrates, initiated this tradition, with his imaginary totalitarian
society, the Republic. (Arguably neither Socrates nor Plato thought of it as a
blueprint, only as a model to help us remember what’s important.)

Not, however, until the American Founders wrote the Declaration of
Independence did a truly credible official idea of the public good finally
emerge. Others did, of course, educate the Founders, most notably the 17th
century English philosopher John Locke. Curiously, even paradoxically, it
took a bunch of individualists to finally come up with a sensible notion of the
public good!

The reason is not difficult to appreciate. Human beings, while alike in certain
important respects, are also very different in other important ones. That is
what a sensible individualism teaches: we are all human individuals!
Accordingly, the message of the Declaration is that the public good, quite
unexpectedly for many people, is something rather modest. Instead of
devising some kind of utopia in which all the problems people face is dealt
with by government -- the king, tsar, pharaoh, Caesar, Sheik, democratically
elected group or some other supreme ruler -- the Founders realized that the
public good is the competent, diligent, conscientious protection of everyone’s
unalienable individual rights.

Yes, that’s the only bona fide , genuine public good. Certainly what all too
many con artists are foisting upon us as cases of the public good do not
qualify at all -- a sports arena, a convention hall, a city pool or golf course,
AIDS or obesity research, the city zoo, and so forth. None of these amount
to true public goods. They are all pretenders, private or special projects
masquerading as something that will benefit us all!

Yet the only thing that qualifies for being a public good is the protection of
the rights everyone has by virtue of his or her human nature. And, as the
Founders so aptly put it, governments are properly instituted so as to secure
these rights, not for any other purpose.

This is why the American political tradition -- though, sadly, not American
political history -- is associated with the notion of limited government,
government restricted to some few essential tasks. The Bill of Rights
suggested some of the details of this by laying out a few or limited powers of
government, with everything else left for us all to do in the myriad of
voluntary groupings we can organize. And it matters not at all that Founders
and Framers thought all this up back around 1776 -- it is still as sound an
idea as it was back then. (After all, those who disagree and want a massive
government, intruding on us all in innumerable ways, are actually
advocating something that is much older than the limited government idea
-- from the start most political thinkers promoted the idea of some kind of
super state with an absolute or nearly unlimited ruler on top! Yes, Virginia, it
is statists who are reactionaries instead of radicals or progressives!)

So, the American Founders did propose a solid idea of the public interest, of
everyone’s genuine interest in society , namely, protecting everyone’s basic
rights. That’s a serious task, in need of focus and discipline, and when it’s
abandoned in favor of the multitasking government now in fashion we
actually suffer a great loss. (Arguably 9/11 would not have happened had
the government kept to its limited job and done it well!) The founders’ idea
also answers an age old question: What really is the public good, what really
promotes the general welfare? It is to make sure everyone is free of
coercion, that’s what.

Some think this isn’t a grand enough vision of government and they are
dead right -- it is a grand vision of the potentials and capacities of the
citizens of a country, not of its government! Instead of championing the all
mighty state, which is still so often irrationally worshipped around the globe,
the American idea was -- it is now nearly forgotten -- that government is to
be scaled down to a manageable scope and size and citizens, individual
human beings and their voluntary associations, are to be entrusted with the
really significant tasks in society.

So on the 4th of July we need to celebrate this magnificent, revolutionary
idea, the confidence in the human individual, not in some version of bloated

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