The fundamental object of the American project is individual freedom; the sanctity of the individual, the basic assumption of American conservatism. Man is inherently free. Whether one views that as a gift from God or a simple fact of nature, it is provably true. Absent constraint from others, each individual can do whatever he is physically capable of doing. His natural state of being, then, is in complete freedom. If that state of freedom is God’s will, it must be seen as a state of perfection. Absent God from the equation and it is still an inarguable fact of nature. It is naturally ordained.
In every society, freedom is preferred. It is, to all, the ideal state of being. So favored is freedom that, in all societies, disapproved behavior is punished by a withdrawal, extinguishment or denial of freedom. So ideal is the state of freedom that it is extended in increasing levels to those of elevated social or political rank. The choice between freedom and constraint is one that comes naturally to man. The truth that freedom is Man’s inherent condition led the Founders to shape a government that recognized that fact as its basis.
If the fundamental premise in the formation of a theory of government is a recognition of the inherent and preferred state of individual freedom, that body whose purpose it is to govern Man must reflect that principle. The legitimate purpose of government, then, must be to preserve individual freedom. Americans hold this truth as manifest and it is what distinguishes the American system of government from all others. The Founders said as much in the great Declaration. Governments, they wrote, are instituted among men for one great purpose and that is the preservation of the unalienable right of individual liberty. It is on that foundation that the edifice of American government was constructed and it informs every conception of its proper role in civil society. The Declaration was a statement of premises; the Constitution, a description of the system based on those premises.
This notion of government represents a profound break from the assumptions underlying all other governmental systems. All other systems historically proceed from the premise that the purpose of government is to control its citizens and to order society. It is a world view that is fundamentally at odds with that which animates our own. If the purpose of government is to control, nothing can be denied it. Irrespective of its system of formation, whether by hereditary monarchy, democratic election, revolution or civil dictatorship, government premised on control may deal with its citizens in whatever manner it wishes. If its wish is to divest individuals of their lives or the fruits of their labor, it may do so whether that decision is made by an absolute tyrant or by vote of the people. The purpose of government formed on this premise is properly, fundamentally and logically to coerce. The exercise of arbitrary power is the rule.
Among the many disadvantages of such a system is that it is unpredictable operating, as it must, on the whims of those in control. It is, therefore, irrational and contrary to the law of nature and the inherent and preferred condition of Man. It imposes human will on individuals not for the purpose of preventing them from impinging on the prerogatives of others but for purposes of control qua control.
A government whose purpose is to coerce cannot be one based on the premise of the sanctity of individual freedom. A government whose premise is the sanctity of individual freedom must have as its purpose the protection of that freedom. It exists for the purpose of ensuring that citizens, in the exercise of their inherent freedom, do not impinge on the rights of others to fully exercise their own. It exists to prevent individuals from taking the lives of others; stealing things belonging to others; physically harming others; preventing others from fully engaging their legitimate autonomy and choices.
A government whose purpose is to protect rather than to coerce is one that cannot, itself, do to individual citizens what other individuals may not. It cannot allow itself to become the instrument of individual oppression or the interests of the few. It cannot take the fruits of the labor of individual citizens for its enrichment or for the enrichment of others. It cannot, without cause, take the lives of citizens. It may not constrain the freedom of its citizens by denying them any manner of rights. The right to express themselves. The right to be secure in their persons and affects. The right to worship in whatever manner they choose, to name a few. It is a government that has as its one great duty, the protection of each and every citizen as against each and every other citizen.
Its duty to protect goes beyond the protection of one citizen from another, though. Its duty is to protect the collective citizenry from threats to their freedom from other nations or collections of people. Its duty is to provide for the common defense, that no nation may encroach on the freedom of the citizens, the protection of which is the fundamental duty of legitimate government.
Government’s protective purpose, then, is to preserve individual freedom, enable each person to fully exercise his prerogatives, to prevent others from restraining his ability to do as he will recognizing the rights of others to do the same and to protect the free society it provides from invasion by those who would divest the citizens of the freedom that is Man’s natural condition. It is, and must be, protective rather than coercive.
These are the presuppositional underpinnings of the establishment of legitimate government.
What has this to do with conservatism? Everything. American conservatism is that system of political thought that seeks to conserve the philosophy of the Founding. If it is to do so, its advocates must understand the premises on which the Founders proceeded in forming that most perfect government.
The Founders understood that maintaining the protective purpose would not be easy. They knew they needed a document that stated that purpose and described a government that reflected the values on which it was premised. They also knew that in the exercise of democracy, self-interest can intrude so they made it clear in the founding documents that this was to be a government of limited powers; that this government, by its very charter, would have only certain powers, and no more. They provided for a means of enforcing the limitation on governmental power in the document itself. The Constitution was seen not as a starting point for governmental power but as a statement of limitation, in accordance with the protective purpose of government. It was a charter that was also to serve as a limitation on the power of the people to act contrary to the premises on which it was based. It was a charter that reflected the philosophical presuppositions on which it was formed.
A government with a protective purpose must be limited in its power and to emphasize that limitation, the founding generation adopted the first ten amendments to set forth the people’s freedoms that could not be infringed by government. Those amendments emphasized the premise that freedom was the basis and government’s duty to protect it.
Among the most basic duties of government, and its most basic power, is the setting and enforcement of rules. In a government with a protective purpose, those rules must be directed only to prevent conduct that impinges on the rights and prerogatives of others. So, we have laws prohibiting murder and battery and stealing and rape and all invasions of the right of citizens to be secure in their persons and effects and unrestrained in the exercise of their freedom. Rules that coerce without having as a reason the protection of the prerogatives of others, are infringements of liberty that are not in the legitimate power of government.
If we are to analyze modern political problems and offer conservative solutions, we must understand our premises so we can measure challenges against the political philosophy that necessarily follows from them. Some problems will not have political solutions and some solutions are best left to instruments other than government. But if we are to have a consistent political philosophy, it must be formed of rational premises and derived from reason with a keen understanding that the object of politics is government and government’s sole legitimate purpose is the protection of individual freedom.
If conservatism means anything, it is that the founding principles must be protected at any cost. It means a return to basic assumptions. It means that the original charter must mean what the Founders thought it meant, not what we might like it to mean today. If, for some reason, some portion of it is no longer applicable in our modern world, we have the means of amending it to ensure the document and the principles it embodies remain vital. But that power must be employed, as it has been, only sparingly and after due contemplation.
If conservatism means anything, it is that legitimate government action is only in the protection of the lives and liberties of its citizens and every act, statute and rule must be seen through that prism. It means that every enactment must be opposed that unnecessarily limits the rights of the individual to do as he chooses. It means that any act we take as a nation to secure the liberty of our people is a moral imperative and that our freedom extends to those who embrace it and not to those who would do it harm.
If conservatism means anything it is that we recognize the limitations our Founders placed on the power and prerogatives of government and that they did so as a means of ensuring that its protective purpose will never be set aside. We have, in our modern age, seen the erosion of our basic principles and the slow transformation of our government from its protective purpose to a coercive one. If there is a rallying point for conservatives, it is in the fight for individual freedom. Now, as never before, we must be about its business.