When Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States, announced Representative Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate, Ryan said that America was an idea. He spoke of the idea that human rights derive from God and from nature and not from government. Whether or not human rights ought to be grounded in natural law is a discussion for another day. For now, let us think about the opposition Ryan asserts between God and nature on one hand and government on the other.
His remarks intimate that government is some tyrannical bogey man out to debilitate righteous free enterprise, binding it with red tape and stealing our liberties and our hard-earned money through taxes. He seems to think that big government equals a reduction of our human rights. This is a distortion of the idea of America.
If we look to the Declaration of Independence as the founding document that articulates the idea of America, we ought to consider not only the beginning sections but also the end. We have heard the words so often that we know them by heart: “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 that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is where many of us stop.
However, what comes next is equally, if not more, important. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” According to the Declaration, while government is not the origin of human rights, it exists to secure human rights. It also reminds us that the governed have a duty to institute governments that will secure their safety and happiness. So to posit an opposition between rights and government is incorrect.
Further, when we think about the idea of America, it is important to consider the responsibilities that come with rights. The Declaration says: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor.” Thus, the idea of America is a country where the government secures human rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the citizens mutually pledge to each other our lives, fortunes and sacred honor.
We have reached a sad place in our national history and in the evolution of the idea of America when we speak of rights without responsibility. What does a mutual pledge of our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor mean when a presidential candidate says that if he paid one dollar more in taxes than the law required, he would not be qualified to be president? What does the idea of America mean when people put their fortunes in accounts in other countries to avoid taxes to support their own country whose laws and infrastructure allowed them to get rich in the first instance?
What does the idea of America mean when a candidate for president looks for ways to pay less property tax in a state that is in such economic distress that it must raise tuition rates in state colleges and universities thereby making it more difficult for poor and middle class young people to move up the economic ladder?
What does the idea of America mean when the rich, for the most part, do not fight in our nation’s wars, pay as little taxes as they can, and then dishonorably distort the truth in our national political conversation in order to gain and to maintain power?
In this coming election, we the people of the United States ought to consider these questions as we define with our votes the idea of America.