Monday, September 22, 2008

The Missing Ingredient

"I have come to believe that we must take bold and unequivocal action: we must make rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization." 1

A central organizing purpose. I like that idea. Set a goal or a principle which then serves as a fundamental guide to setting priorities and directing action. At this stage in my life, my personal central organizing purpose is the health and well-being of my family, each member individually and all of us together as a functioning unit.

What about a civilization? Can it have a central organizing purpose?

Our country originally had a central organizing purpose: securing unalienable rights, among which are the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration of Independence states unequivocally the securing of these rights is why governments are formed. Subsequently, the Constitution was written with the express goal of creating the institutions which would protect these rights from violation by fellow citizens, foreign interlopers, and most importantly, by government itself.

How far we have travelled from this original purpose of government is sadly evident in the political platforms of both major parties for this election. Individual rights and freedom are rarely mentioned. Instead, we hear speech after speech telling us how government power will be used to achieve some specific policy: development of alternative fuels, affordable health care, retirement security, limits on CO2 production.

What has been lost is that none of these programs “for the greater good” can be implemented by government without violating the rights of individuals. Yet, protection of the rights of individuals is the sole legitimate function of any government! Somewhere along the way, we got off track. Instead of working to protect the individual, allowing each of us the freedom to set our own goals and priorities, and pursue them as we best see fit, government has become a behemoth of power and programs assuring that we are each others keepers (Obama), living not for our own sake, but for the sake of a “cause greater than self” (McCain)

Steve Chapman’s excellent editorial, recently published in the Chicago Tribune, addresses this issue by asking “When did the idea of freedom become a political orphan?” He points out that placing the needs of the community above the rights of the individual is not the fundamental principle of the United States, but of socialism. Putting country first, does not promote individual rights, but nationalism. And nationalism and socialism have not brought peace or prosperity to the world, but the opposite. Socialism and nationalism have brought concentration camps and the KGB, war and environmental destruction, impoverishment and famine. Neither current presidential candidate makes this connection. Both call for the subordination of the individual to the collective, one for the sake of the country, the other for the sake of the “poor.”

The missing ingredient today is individual rights and the liberty which flows from them. If applied consistently to each individual, then person and property are respected, and interactions are peaceful and voluntary. The “central organizing purpose” of civilization arises out of the sum total of all the actions and interactions which occur as individuals go about their lives, pursuing their own personal goals.

Only when a “central organizing purpose” respects the life and rights of each and every person can peace and prosperity be achieved. Anything less attempts to attain a “greater good” while sacrificing some individuals for others. Human sacrifice never has and never will preserve peace or create wealth. The missing ingredient for solutions to today’s challenges, whether it is hunger, political or economic inequality, national security, or environmental quality, is respect for human life and individual rights--as an absolute. No “solution" which violates individual rights can take us to a place worth going.


1. Al Gore, The Earth in Balance, Rodale, 2006, pg 269 (originally published 1992. )

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