Saturday, March 14, 2009

We the People

A lot of the polarized, partisan rhetoric in America in recent years has centered around our interpretation of the Constitution of the United States—with the First and Second Amendments getting more than their share of attention. As we contemplate where our “more perfect union” is headed today, I suggest we review the first sentence of that august document, wherein the Founding Fathers laid out the purpose of the whole enterprise:

“to . . . establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”

This, in a nutshell, is the purpose of the United States government: to ensure that government serves the people—all the people—rather than the other way around.

As we know, this is not the case in many countries. The government of North Korea, for example, is an imperial cult of personality centered on worship of its founder, Kim Il-sung, father of the current leader. Its purpose is to sustain the memory of the “Eternal Leader”—and, of course, the personal power of his descendants. In Iran and other theocracies, government is a means of extending the power of religion—and religious leaders—to every aspect of the lives of the people. Communist countries, like China, are one-party governments in which power resides in the leaders of the party. In each of these examples, the purpose of government is to enhance and preserve the power of a few privileged individuals.

So while the purpose of many governments is to ensure the power of the few over the many, the purpose of democracies—and, specifically, of this democracy—is to ensure the power of the many over the few.

Nobody ever said this would be easy. The minute it begins to look simple, questions arise; for example, “What is a person?” “Who are “'the many'”?

We pretty much all agree that even the Founding Fathers failed to get it right—many of them were slave holders. But even today, we struggle over fundamental questions:

  • Is an unborn fetus a person? What about an embryo? A zygote?
  • What rights should people have who live and work in this country but are not citizens?
  • What should be the fundamental rights of all human beings—including prisoners and “alien combatants”?
  • Should “the many” include sentient beings that are not “human”? For example, should the laws of the land protect domestic animals from suffering and abuse? Should they protect entire species from extinction?
  • Is there such a thing as a right not to live, or continue living?

We in America have a long, long way to go before we reach consensus on any of these questions.

But here are a few things that, hopefully, we can agree on—at least in principle, of not in practice:

  • Government should be separate from religion.
  • Top leaders should be elected, not anointed or appointed by those who already hold those positions.
  • Executive, legislative, and judicial powers should be separate and balanced.

There’s only one real problem with all of this: the lust for power and dominance is a fundamental fact of human nature. There will always be those who think they know best, who crave power, who believe influence should be bought and paid for with money. We must always be on guard against those forces, whether they reside in an individual, a religion, or a political party. As the old saying goes, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

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