In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.
For Americans this statement forms the basis for our personal freedoms. It’s a simple, direct statement whose meaning cannot be misunderstood without a willful effort in self-deceipt.
Parsing it we must understand that happiness is not in itself a right – only the right to attempt to achieve it is. I define happiness as satisfaction with the current outcome of one’s life. Therefore, it is logical to conclude that equal outcomes are not an inalienable right.
In fact, equal outcomes for any large number of people can only be achieved through extreme manipulation of society’s means of production and governance. I see no charter for that in Jefferson’s Declaration.
As some of you know, I develop computer software for a living. One result is that I automatically categorize systems into two categories: those that work and those that do not. For dysfunctional systems, the two most important questions are:
- Why doesn’t it work?
- What can be done to make it work?
Regarding #1, the most common answer is that the system was either designed incorrectly and so failed of it’s own merit. Political examples of this include communism and most monarchies and theologies.
Another, perhaps more common answer is that a system was once functional but failed after the original, normally more streamlined rules and processes were altered and made (vastly?) more complicated without proper regard for the desired outcomes. The American government is a modern example of such a system as it nears failure.
In either case the answer to question #2 is the same: strip away non-functioning and undesirable features of the system, cast them aside, and concentrate on satisfying the essential requirements of the system.
Life and liberty are the two core rights that the American government is obligated to maintain for its citizens. The right to bear arms, to assembly, to free speech and religion, and others were granted as amendments because they are derived from the two inalienable rights Jefferson defined more than a decade before.
This simplicity is both elegant and appropriate. Complex systems are inherently more prone to failure than simple ones. Government is no exception. It follows that a nation’s citizens should be granted elementary rights and that these rights should apply to all, without exception.
Rights are not rules by which individual cases can be decided, however. They are too general, too elementary, and must be augmented by a simple, well-defined set of laws that create the outcomes that citizens desire. There cannot be too many laws, they cannot overlap with or contradict one another, and they must be understood by the lay citizen.
Desired outcomes such as an orderly, peaceful society are achieved in part by curtailing undesired behaviors. Criminals are jailed, politicians are forbidden (in theory) from taking bribes, etc.
Promotion of desired behaviors is the other method by which a government achieves its goals. Inventions are complemented with patents, heroic acts are rewarded with fame and fortune, tax breaks are given to positive influences, and so on.
It is both the duty and the responsibility of the government to use both of these levers to achieve its aims. But as in any effective, efficient system, outside influences – the government itself, in this case – should be as minimized to the extent possible and the natural ecosystem allowed to achieve its own internal equilibrium.
That is, citizens should be allowed to work, achieve, and prosper according to their own merits so long as they stay within the confines of the law. The corallary is that the government should stay out of the business of its citizens unless rules are being broken.
In my opinion this is the razor that should be applied to any question of politics or policy that arises.
For instance, I was recently chastised for my position that gay marriage ought not be allowed in the U.S. I have two reasons for holding this position. First, such unions are abnormal in that no children can result and that male homosexuality is inherently prone to disease issues.
Second and more important to me is the fact that most Americans oppose gay marriage on principle. Discussions about gays’ right to marry as they choose are not relevant because Americans have chosen to provide incentives to those in traditional relationships by granting the recognition of their unions in the form of marriage.
Conversely, most Americans today do not support the criminalization of gay sex. Therefore, sodomy laws that are decades, even centuries old, should be eliminated.
The goal should be to have a clean, streamlined set of laws that is as brief as possible. Undesired laws should be removed and new laws should be considered according to the same rigor of thought.
So-called Hate Crime laws should also be examined in that context. Assault, battery, rape, and murder are all illegal in America and rightly so. Proponents of hate crime legislation seek to create new laws that conflict with existing laws by applying different standards to defendants based on perceived motivation.
While the specific cases most often referenced to justify their proposals are indeed heinous, hate crimes laws fail the simplicity test by requiring juries to ascertain motive beyond a reasonable dought and the non-overlapping test for obvious reasons.
That hate crimes laws will likely be enacted within the next few years is further proof that the American government is moving farther from the objective of providing blind justice to Americans and closer to becoming a system that will – someday – inevitably fail because of its own complexities.
Our representatives are supposed to keep this from happening by applying a proper filter – that of our long-term desired outcomes – to current issues and refusing to take actions that compromise the integrity of the system as a whole.
Where has this idea gone?