The American people are “demanding that we realign our country’s compass with its founding principles” in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution! So says the Republican Party’s “Pledge toAmerica,” which champions smaller, more accountable government, economic freedom, lower taxes, and fiscal responsibility. The Tea Party’s “Contract fromAmerica” calls for fiscal responsibility and limited government “consistent with the U.S. Constitution’s meaning,” asserting that “our moral, political, and economic liberties are inherent, not granted by our government.”
Republicans and Tea Partiers want the smallest possible federal government that taxes the least and interferes in daily life the least. Toward that end, they want to slash government spending, privatize and curtail Social Security and Medicare, defund and repeal the Affordable Care Act (deridingly referred to as “Obamacare”), eliminate Environmental Protection Agency regulations, and cut programs that mainly serve low-income Americans.
Are these policies and programs consistent with the core values and ideals underlying the Declaration and the Constitution? Only a probing analysis of the meaning and intent of our founding documents can help us answer this question. In We Hold These Truths (Macmillan 1987), the renowned 20th Century philosopher and educator Mortimer J. Adler called the Declaration of Independence, “the architectural blueprint” of theUnited States, from which “we can derive the fundamental principles of republican or constitutional government.” He wrote that from the Preamble of the Constitution, the articles that follow it, and their subsequent amendments, “we can come to understand the elaboration of those articles of political faith in terms of governmental aims, governmental structures, and governmental policies.”
The Declaration of Independence proclaims that:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men….”
Slavery having been abolished and women enfranchised, Adler construed Thomas Jefferson’s powerful words to mean that “all human beings are by nature equal as persons… none being more or less human than any other.” We all have bodies and brains. Although some people are smarter, better looking, or more physically fit than others, all need food, water, clothing, and shelter to survive. All people have rights “inherent in their human nature” including “life, liberty, and anything else that we need in order to pursue happiness.” A government is “just only insofar as it secures or safeguards these rights.”
The pursuit of happiness, Adler said, has its foundation in “our moral obligation to make good lives for ourselves,” and it is “the primary right.” The rights to life and liberty are “rights to means indispensable for the pursuit of happiness.” However, security of life and limb, freedom of action, and political liberty are dependent on external circumstances that are within the power of our government to provide or help us obtain. For example, “our natural right to life calls for the protection of our health as well as security of life and limb.” Viewed through the prism of the Declaration of Independence, health care reform legislation to cover the uninsured, laws and regulations protecting the air we breathe and the water we drink, and measures to slow or reverse global warming that science tells us is threatening the health of our planet and its human inhabitants, are necessary to implement our right to life.
Republican and Tea Party Senators and Representatives oppose all of these government programs even though they are consistent with the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the objectives of the Constitution, the Preamble of which includes ideals that were anticipated by the Declaration:
We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, 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, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Implicit in the Preamble, according to Adler, “is the assertion that no society in which we would want to live can exist without justice, civil peace, self-defense, welfare, and liberty.” Much discussion and dispute has centered on the phrase “general welfare,” which also is found in Article One, Section 8 of the Constitution, giving Congress the power “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of theUnited States.” Adler maintained that the “general welfare” is an element in the common or public good that the government was created to serve, and the common good in turn is a means to the pursuit of happiness. The critical question is “how much governmental power and action is needed to satisfy all the purposes that government should serve if it is aimed, first and directly at the public good, and then, indirectly, through serving the public good, the pursuit of happiness by its citizens, which is the ultimate objective of a just and benevolent government?”
The Republican “Pledge toAmerica” argues that Congress has ignored “the proper limits imposed by the Constitution.” It demands that the size of government be reduced, spending slashed, and taxes curtailed. The Tea Party “Contract fromAmerica” maintains that the “purpose of government should be limited to the protection of our liberties by administering justice and insuring our safety.” It asserts that government should not venture beyond these functions or attempt to increase its power over the marketplace and the economic decisions of individuals. These views echo the platform of the Libertarian Party, which emphasizes individual liberty in personal and economic affairs without interference from government.
In Six Great Ideas (Macmillan 1981), Adler observed that libertarians “not only place the highest value on liberty but also seek to maximize it at the expense of equality.” They want an unlimited amount of freedom, and they are willing to try to achieve it even if the result is “an irremediable inequality of conditions, under which some portion of a society, usually a majority, suffers serious deprivation.” Adler insisted that “the only liberties to which we can make a claim upon society are the freedom to do as we please within the limits imposed by justice.”
Adler allowed that each individual is entitled to the wealth that he or she produces. The maxim for corporations should be “to each in proportion to his contribution to the total wealth that all engage cooperatively in producing.” But two qualifications must be attached to these rules. First, all have a natural right to be equal on a base line of income sufficient to satisfy basic economic needs. Second, since the amount of wealth available for distribution is limited, no one should be in a position to earn “so much wealth that not enough remains for distribution to put all individuals or families on the base line of economic sufficiency.” In other words, no tax cuts for the rich if the government will be left with insufficient resources to assist the poor.
The key to resolving the conflict between the extremist exponents of liberty and equality, according to Adler, is to recognize that “neither liberty nor equality is the prime value, that neither is an unlimited good, and that both can be maximized harmoniously only when regulated by justice.” This means that we should have only as much liberty as justice allows, and society should strive for only as much equality of conditions as justice requires. The economic inequality that justice allows “consists in some having more wealth than anyone needs.” Justice requires, however, that no individual or family be “seriously deprived, by destitution or dire poverty, of that minimal supply of economic goods that everyone needs.”
Arch-conservatives will reject this analysis on the ground that economic rights are not explicitly mentioned in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Adler would respond that “they are implicitly there when we understand the Declaration to be saying that among the inalienable rights that human beings possess are life, liberty, and whatever else they need for the pursuit of happiness.” Economic rights were not a significant concern in an eighteenth century society of self-sufficient farmers, artisans, and slave plantations; but by the beginning of the twentieth century, the Industrial Revolution had totally transformedAmerica. The mass production of a wide variety of goods raised the standard of living for a growing middle class. It also created a large class of low-paid workers struggling to subsist in squalid urban tenements.
These conditions prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to recognize in 1910 that “the object of the government is the welfare of the people” and that the economic wellbeing of laborers must be protected:
No man can be a good citizen unless he has a wage more than sufficient to cover the bare cost of living and hours of labor short enough so that after his day’s work is done he will have time and energy to bear his share in the management of the community, to help in carrying the general load. We keep countless men from being good citizens by the conditions of life with which we surround them.
In his message to Congress in 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence…. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made….” He urged Congress to implement various economic rights– to a useful and remunerative job, adequate food and shelter, a decent home, adequate medical care, a good education, and protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment. Government programs that secure and implement these rights such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Unemployment Insurance, and federal funding to improve education, create jobs, boost energy efficiency, and repair the nation’s infrastructure—all under attack by the far right, are consistent with the ideals and objectives of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Adler recognized that they provide our citizens “the minimum needed for a decent human life, for the proper exercise of political liberty, and for an effective pursuit of happiness.”
Adler anticipated our current economic crisis when he wrote that we are still “far from realizing as fully as possible the recently emergent ideal of democracy” that secures for the poor and un-propertied “the economic as well as political equality that justice requires.” One in five Americans is unemployed or underemployed. More than fifty million people are living in poverty, and another 20 million barely subsist on Social Security. Over 1.5 million are homeless, and one in seven mortgages is in default or foreclosure. More than 17 million children lack the means to get enough nutritious food on a regular basis. Over 50 million lack health insurance.
These needy persons can expect little relief from conservative Republican and Tea Party Representatives and Senators who promise to stop “out of control spending” and reduce the size of government while at the same time insisting that the richest Americans and hugely profitable corporations continue to receive generous tax breaks. Why? Because the wealthy individuals and anonymous organizations that support this agenda pour hundreds of millions of dollars into Congressional campaigns, and special corporate and industrial interests dedicate billions of dollars to lobbying. Aaron Pendell describes the impact:
Anyone who doubts the corrupting effect has not been paying attention. Our elected representatives have been acutely sensitive to the needs of Wall Street bankers, hedge-fund managers, and the executives of big pharma, big oil, and the largest health insurance companies. This is not because these individuals are particularly worthy or specially deserving. It is because they are effectively bribing elected officials with their donations. Such donations are not made out of charitable impulse. They are calculated investments no less carefully considered than investments in particular shares of stock. They are shares in our democracy. (“Media Debates Anonymous Donors, Ignores Deceptive Ads,” www.care2.com , October 24, 2010).
Adler warned us in We Hold These Truths that the rich and super-rich would use their money to “exert political pressures and exercise political powers that cannot be justified by any political function they perform, for they act as private citizens rather than as public officials.” He predicted, correctly, that the performance of their political duties by officeholders would be “aborted or skewed by the undue influence exerted upon them by persons of great wealth in order to serve their private interests, not the public good.” Adler concluded that justice requires us to prevent this “misuse of great wealth” by publicly funding all electoral campaigns, shortening the campaign season to six or eight weeks, and assuring candidates equal time and opportunity to reach the electorate by television through public financing.
The “Pledge toAmerica” and the “Contract fromAmerica” challenge us to recall our beginnings as a nation and revisit the ideas and ideals that form the basis of our government and society. This analysis is mandatory because, as Mortimer Adler said, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are the “American testament” and in relation to one another, “they are like the sacred scriptures of this nation.” There are even older scriptures, however, in the New Testament and the Torah that define the just and proper balance between the imperatives of liberty and equality:
Of course, I don’t mean that you should give so much that you suffer from having too little. I only mean that there should be some equality. Right now you have plenty and can help them. Then at some other time they can share with you when you need it. In this way, everyone’s needs will be met. Do you remember what the Scriptures say about this? ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’ (2 Corinthians 8:13-15, New Living Translation of the Bible; Exodus 16:18, Revised Standard Version of the Bible).
John D’Amico is a former Monmouth County Freeholder, former Superior Court Judge, former State Senator and former Chairman of the New Jersey Parole Board