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Conscience of the Majority

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The real American Revolution was not the armed conflict with King George III. That was a relatively unimportant incident. It was, instead, a concept which, when fully understood, is seen to be a fundamental principle. To fully appreciate the fundamental nature of this revolutionary principle, it is necessary to keep in mind that in other lands and during previous times mankind had been contending with and slaying each other by the millions over the age-old question of which among the numerous forms of authoritarianism — that is, man-made authority — should preside as sovereign over man.

Then, in 1776, in a fraction of one sentence, was recorded the real essence of the American Revolution — concisely and solemnly stating for the first time in any significant political action — the idea which rejected the ancien regime: “. . . they [men] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. . . .” There you have it! This is The Principle, the very essence of the American miracle. . . .

This is at once a spiritual, a political, and an economic principle. It is spiritual in that it proclaims the Creator as the endower of men’s rights and, thus, as sovereign; political in the sense that such an acknowledgment implicitly denies the State as the endower of men’s rights and, thus, the State — be it managed by a dictator or a majority — is not sovereign; and economic in this way: If a man has a right to his life, it follows that he has a right to sustain his life, the sustenance of life being nothing more nor less than the fruits of one’s own labor. Note the relationship here to the private property principle — “to each according to merit. . . .”

That the Constitution and the Bill of Rights . . . were perfect complements to the right to the fruits of one’s own labor and to the concept that the Creator is the endower of rights, there can be no doubt. These political instruments were essentially a set of prohibitions not against the citizenry but against the thing the citizens had learned from their Old-World experience to fear, namely, over-extended government. (The words “no” and “not,” employed in restraint of governmental power, occur 24 times in the 7 original articles of our Constitution. In the Bill of Rights the words “no” and “not” and the correlatives “or” and “nor” — all in restraint of government — appear 22 times.) They more severely limited government than government had ever before been limited. They deposed government as the endower of rights. Furthermore, government was shorn of the responsibility for the people’s security, welfare, and prosperity.

There were remarkable benefits which flowed from this severe limitation of government. First, when government is so limited that it has nothing on hand to dispense nor the power to take from some that it may give to others, to whom or to what do a people turn? They turn to themselves! As a result, there developed among early Americans a quality of character which Emerson later praised, “self-reliance.” Americans earned a world-wide reputation for being a self-reliant people.

Second, when government is limited to the only principled function it possesses, that is, when it is limited to restraining and penalizing fraud, violence, predation, misrepresentation, and to the invoking of a common justice, there follows as a consequence of that limitation a freeing, a releasing, of such creative energies as are in the people. When government duly inhibits the destructive actions of people, there is no force inhibiting the creative actions.

It was this freeing of creative human energy on an unprecedented scale, among a self-reliant people, that accounted from the greatest outburst of productive and creative energy ever known. . . .

Suffice it to say, government today in the U.S.A. is again unlimited. The rights of man are now thought to derive from the State. Democracy reigns! The answer it gives to the question as to who shall rule is the majority. The extent of the rule, today, is whatever the conscienceless majority decides. That the road we are on must lead to disasters common to all Old-World political arrangements is evident enough. In principle, there is no distinction — none whatsoever — between our form of many men playing the Creator role and their form of one man playing the Creator role. Ask yourself, what precisely are the essential differences between the divine right of the majority and the “divine right of kings”?

Mr. Read (1898-1983) was founder of The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington, New York. This is an excerpt from an article which appeared in Volume 8 of Essays on Liberty, published by FEE in 1961.

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    Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder and president of The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), 30 S. Broadway, Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.