STARTING DOWN THE PATH

There is an old saying among philosophers:  not to philosophize is to philosophize.  To put that another way, whenever you do any serious thinking, you have to start somewhere.  All thinking presumes some basic premises based upon which the thinker is able to draw conclusions from his or her observations.  Some people examine the premises upon which their thinking is based, and some just make conclusions uncritically, based upon principles that they have somehow assumed.  If you are to do critical thinking, and this site is dedicated to the very notion of critical thinking, then you have to start by examining those premises.  The end, as the Roman poet Manilius said, hangs from the beginning.  The founding principles, what I prefer to call the enspiriting core, are the key, the since qua non, to understanding, and critiquing, any body of thought.

It is to the credit of the authors of The Path to Prosperity (The Path) that, at the very beginning of the document, they set forth the principles upon which they base their entire program: “The budget resolution for Fiscal Year 2012 intends to recommit the nation fully to the timeless principles of American government enshrined in the U. S. Constitution — liberty, limited government, and equality under the rule of law.  It seeks to guide policy by those principles,freeing the nation from the crushing burden of debt that is now threatening its future.”   Any attempt to understand the merits of The Path has to start by analyzing the meaning of these words and critiquing their accuracy.  I wish here merely to raise some questions about this straightforward statement of The Path’s enspiriting core.

I wonder, first of all:  where did these “timeless principles” come from?  The document says that they are “enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.”  There are at least two problems with that statement.  The first is that, by the very terms of the Constitution itself, nothing contained therein is timeless, since absolutely everything in it,  including presumably the very name “Constitution” may be amended by Congress subject to ratification by the states.  The second, and far more serious, problem is that the enspiriting core of the American form of government, the timeless truths that form the basis of the American ideal, are found, not in the Constitution, but rather in the Declaration of Independence:  “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.”  By saying that these truths are self-evident, the founders are boldly stating that one cannot think differently, that one cannot look at the world without recognizing that every human being, simply by virtue of the status of being human, has rights that cannot be compromised or ignored.

So, I wonder, second of all:  Is The Path’s announced enspiriting core, if not drawn from the Declaration of Independence, at least compatible with the core of the American ideal stated in the Declaration of Independence?  The Path’s statement does list both liberty and equality as features of it grounding principles.  The problem is twofold.  First of all, neither document defines either the word “liberty” or the word “equality.”  Second, The Path announces “limited government” as a “timeless principle”, but, whether or not it actually is, it is nowhere listed in the Declaration.  Aside from philosophical essays and insurance policies, terms are rarely explicitly defined, and we are therefore commonly left to infer the definition of terms from context and common usage.  Allow me to make a few suggestions along those lines.

There are two radically different ways to look at the word “liberty.”  The first is to define it personally.  In that sense, liberty is an announcement of my own lack of restraint.  For instance, one might say that liberty means that I am free to do whatever I wish provided that my exercise of that liberty does not unduly violate another person’s lack  of restraint.   This is what I call the negative concept of freedom.  The fundamental idea of lack of restraint is negative, and the limits of that liberty are simply inferred from my assertion of my own right to that lack of restraint.  If I have this liberty, then I recognize the same right in others purely by inference from my own right, or else I voluntarily limit my lack of restraint on the calculation that failure to do so would lead to unacceptable conflict.  This kiind of calculation was best presented by the British empiricist Thomas Hobbes, and goes by the general term “social contract.”

The second way to define liberty is to recognize an inherent right in every human being to pursue his or her own fundamental needs.  This is the positive concept of freedom, positve primarily because it rests on the recognition of an affirmative quality that we recognize in others independent of our own needs or rights.  Another way of describing the difference between these two definitions is to say that the first is grounded in the self, the ego, and may therefore be called “ego-centric”, while the second is grounded in one’s recognition of an inherent right in another person, and we can therefore refer to that definition as “other-centric” or “ec-centric.”

There is no doubt that the term “liberty” as used in the Declaration of Independence is other-centric.  Not only is that the plain sense of the language in the Declaration.  It is also consistent with the philosophy from which the authors drew, namely that of John Locke.  Therefore we can comfortably conclude that the enspiriting core of the American ideal is an unconditional commitment to the inherent rights of each and every human being.  The core of the American ideal is a commitment, not to lack of restraint, but to the responsibility of all humans, each for the other.

Whether the enspiriting core of The Path is consistent with that of the Declaration of Independence is, for me, problematic, and it is problematic precisely because of the inclusion of the reference to limited government as a “timeless principle.”  First of all, it is not by any means either timeless or self-evident, even within the American system.  There is, after all, a provision in American political jurisprudence for assumption by the government of substantial, and even at times total, power, as for instance with the declaration of martial law and the suspension of habeas corpus.   Secondly, it is hard to declare that limited government is a self-evident principle when there are many rationally acceptable forms of government such as the various socialist democracies that have existed in Europe and elsewhere.  One may argue that these forms of government are less effective in the long run than a more limited form of government, but that is a pragmatic question, and therefore is nothing like a self-evident “timeless principle.”

The only conclusion I can draw from The Path’s insertion of limited government as a fundamental principle is that its usage is rhetorical rather than rational, political rather than philosophical.  In other words, The Path’s announcement of its principles is political propoganda, written to sell something rather than reason to it.  If that is true, then likely the “liberty” being touted by its authors is their own liberty, and their conception of human rights is ego-centric, and, as such, essentially inconsistent with the enspiriting core of the American ideal.

This is not to say that the economic program presented by The Path does not have merit.  In fact, it makes no comment at all on the merits of that program.  I am simply concluding here that The Path’s announced fundamental principles are not consistent with the American ideal.  In subsequent essays, I will examine the details of the plan, and I will critique those details by use of the self-evident principles that constitute the enspiriting core of the American ideal.

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