Rep. Paul Ryan wraps his Ayn Randian philosophy of unrestrained selfishness in phrasing selectively lifted from the Founders, but the Republican vice presidential nominee misses the role of democracy and self-government in establishing human rights, says historian Jada Thacker.
By Jada Thacker
Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign has been roundly criticized for being light on substance and long on fluff. But his running mate Paul Ryan is promoting a dangerous idea that refutes the historical foundations of democratic government. Practically ignored by the mainstream press, Ryan’s manifesto demands closer scrutiny.
When Rep. Ryan accepted Mitt Romney’s invitation as running mate, the Wisconsin Republican uttered a simple, but profound, statement:
“But America is more than just a place. It’s an idea. It’s the only country founded upon an idea: Our rights come from Nature and God, not government. We promise equal opportunity, not equal outcomes. This idea is founded upon the principles of liberty, freedom, free enterprise, self-determination, and government by the consent of the governed. This idea is under assault.”
“Our rights come from Nature and God, not government?” Let us hope this idea is under assault, because it is powerful, and it is dangerous.
We know this idea is historically powerful because Americans once used it to overthrow the authority of the British Empire; we know it is imminently dangerous because contemporary American plutocrats are now using it to undermine our hard-won democracy.
Ryan’s opinion that human rights are conferred by “Nature and God” is breathtakingly unoriginal. Witchdoctors and warlords have been inventing and re-inventing the idea of atavistic and supernatural rights since the first virgin was sacrificed on the bloodstained altar of some prehistoric bogeyman. But more recently, and more civilly, the concept was resurrected by English philosopher John Locke in the 17th Century.
Locke, a philosophical shaman of the today’s Libertarian-Right set, hawked the idea that human rights were conferred by an imaginary “law of Nature,” which he said pre-existed and superseded any law made by actual lawmaking people. Think of Moses bringing the tablets down from the Mount – but without Moses, or the tablets, or a population that could read.
Please understand that Locke’s “law of Nature” existed in a prehistoric “state of Nature,” a sort of Garden of Eden where he said “men … by nature all free, equal, and independent” existed without either the cost or any benefit of government. But there was a snake in Locke’s garden: “For although the law of Nature be plain and intelligible to all rational creatures, yet men, being biased by their interest … are not apt to allow of it as a law binding to them in the application of it to their particular cases.”
The only solution to humanity’s selfish transgression of the “law of Nature,” Locke explains, was the establishment of government. “The great and chief end, therefore, of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property; to which in the state of Nature there are many things wanting.”
So, according to Locke, man-made law (government) was invented by man to protect rights that man never made in the first place. (This is but one version of the long-running theory of the “Social Contract.”)
But notice the shift from man in a “state of Nature” to man in a governed society: the “chief end” of this novel entity of government was not to protect mankind’s original condition “by nature all free, equal and independent,” which was their apparent birthright, but “the preservation of their property.”
Does this reasoning sound at least vaguely familiar? It should. It was the same argument that was enthusiastically adopted by the well-to-do, property-owning, tax-evasive, English Colonial elite at the onset of the American Revolution. The current GOP’s political base, if you will – backdated a couple of centuries.
But in contemporary times, Locke’s “natural law” has languished as a hot cocktail party topic for many folks. An interesting exception is arch-conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who, when queried about his judicial philosophy at his 1991 Senate confirmation hearing, said he thought “natural law” provided “philosophical background” to the Constitution.
Now Paul Ryan, who like Thomas is a self-professed Ayn Rand devotee, has weighed in with his grandiloquent echo that humans’ irrevocable rights do not originate from their fellow humans, but from somewhere out of the Blue.
The opinion that persons’ rights derive from Nature, or natural law, has been rejected for centuries by philosophical luminaries from Baruch Spinoza to Jeremy Bentham, who pointed out the obvious: rights derive from law; and law as we know it does not and cannot exist without government.
To imagine “law” existing prior to government, said Bentham, is not only a contradiction of terms, but is “nonsense upon stilts.” The world’s greatest scientists confirmed Bentham’s conclusion: Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel and Albert Einstein, for example, never discovered that “Nature” conferred “rights” to any animal, plant or thing in the known Universe.
Nature – infamous for its so-called Law of the Jungle – is a notorious transgressor of human rights. Any random rattlesnake, bubonic plague bacterium or tsunami stands ready to prove the point to humans foolish enough to fantasize otherwise. Anybody who has ever camped out for a summer weekend without bug repellent can tell tales of woe concerning the “natural rights” showered upon humanity by the natural world.
Whether God confers immutable rights upon humans seems to depend upon whom you ask. Contemporary radical Zionists would probably agree. So might a jihadist terrorist. Adam and Eve, interestingly, could not. Napoleon quipped that God assigned right according to who has the best artillery, but in the following century the Soviets, who in fact possessed the winning artillery at Stalingrad, claimed God did not exist. Go figure.
But even devout believers in the Western monotheistic deity – Christian, Jew and Muslim alike – must admit that, according to scripture, God-given rights apparently do not confer immunity from fatal inconveniences such as Death Angels, plagues, floods, eternal damnation, and, of course, crucifixion.
Declaration of Independence: First Edition
So it would be fair to say Ryan’s “foundational idea” that Americans’ rights come from “Nature and God” is not an established fact. Yet it does have a familiar ring to it, and for good reason. Ryan’s idea was scribbled in stone, as it were, in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which states explicitly that “certain unalienable rights” are endowed by man’s Creator:
“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.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
“Assault Thomas Jefferson if you dare,” was the obvious subtext of Ryan’s pronouncement.
But let’s set the historical record straight here: Thomas Jefferson did not conceive that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Others penned those words.
Let us recall that Jefferson was on a committee whose job it was to draft a statement of independence based upon a Congressional resolution authored on July 2, 1776 by Richard Henry Lee (ironically, or not, the great grand-uncle of rebel leader Robert E. Lee). The committee’s other members were Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston.
Some revisions to Jefferson’s original document seem to have been made by Adams and Franklin, others by the Second Continental Congress as a whole – but it is not known who edited what, exactly. We do know Jefferson’s original words, however. Like any prudent writer, he retained his first draft. This is what he actually wrote:
“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
So Jefferson evidently did not mean that human rights are “endowed by their Creator,” or by Nature, simply because that is not what he wrote. It is clear from his original draft that he personally conceived that inherent human rights derived from humans’ equality, not from Locke’s (or Ryan’s) concept that rights come down to man from some pre-extant force superior to human creation.
This difference between the origins of rights – equality vs. superiority – is crucial. Equal rights have generally been repudiated by the economic elite who find it more profitable to claim that rights flow down from upon High. Those who champion equality have usually supported the obverse: that rights, if they flow at all, need to flow up from the people, “grassroots” style.
It takes no flash of genius to perceive that the elites’ preference for the “superiority model” of rights was not only the basis, but also a prerequisite, for the long-discredited “Trickle-Down” economic theory – which holds that the working class is best nurtured from the table scraps of the wealthy.
This pernicious idea has itself trickled down, like some generation-skipping genetic disease, from Jefferson’s editors, to the Gilded Age, then to Herbert Hoover, thus to Ronald Reagan, and now finally to some guy named Paul Ryan.
Of course, the oligarchs’ embrace of a trickle-down theory of human rights was hardly the only flaw in the self-serving reasoning of those who published the Declaration. That indentured servitude, debtors’ prisons, slavery and bonded child labor were acceptable institutions by those who signed off on the idea that “all men are created equal” seems stunningly hypocritical today. Yet it did not quite seem that way to propertied men empowered by votes unavailable to their servants.
To the mostly privileged soon-to-be Founders, social and economic equality – as well as their peculiar idea of liberty – applied only to the elite who already possessed it. Thus, the American Revolution was not led by an American Spartacus, but rather by the Colonial elite who risked treason against the British Empire in order to preserve for themselves the unequal social and economic prerogatives in their new, distinctly American, empire.
The elites’ Orwellian crusade for “government by those who do not consent to be governed” should sound familiar to those who are afflicted by today’s mainstream, corporate-owned media. This message was not intended to further the interests of a democratic society then, nor is it now, and those who value democracy should heed it at their peril.
The Declaration, Disestablishmentarianism and the Constitution
Its editors’ revisions notwithstanding, the Declaration of Independence still served its purpose. But its purpose was not to “found a country” upon the idea that our rights come from “Nature and God,” as Paul Ryan would have it.
Indeed, the Declaration’s specific intent was not to establish any sort of political entity at all, but rather to disestablish a government that already existed and which, by the late 18th Century, had begun to threaten the prerogatives of the Colonial American elite. The secondary purpose of the Declaration was a public relations play, as its very first sentence makes clear:
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them to another…a decent respect to the opinions of mankind require that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
Despite Paul Ryan’s belief in his mythical “founding idea,” the Second Continental Congress, including Jefferson, weren’t founding anything with all their eloquent words. They were, however, executing a calculated but gutsy gamble – not unlike that of a disaffected wife serving divorce papers on an abusive spouse who was also the most powerful corporate CEO on the planet – and hoping for the best.
How the divorce was to be justified would be critical to its success. To this end, the “opinions of mankind” (especially those of potential allies) were of paramount importance. This public relations task fell to Thomas Jefferson, whose true genius was to turn the logic of monarchical rule on its head, not to beat it at its own game.
For how many millennia had a rogues’ gallery of pharaohs, emperors, kings, czars, sultans and khans decreed that their right to rule came, as Ryan insists, from “Nature and God, not from government?” The crucial challenge of Revolutionary self-government, Jefferson understood, would be to divorce itself not only from the raw power of the king and Parliament, but from the fundamental logic of despotism.
In effect, Jefferson justified the Colonial bride’s right to divorce her abusive spouse on the grounds of her undeniable equality. But his edited argument – based upon Locke and now parroted by Ryan – was that the bride’s right to divorce was justified by her claim to the same assumed superiority of her abusive husband. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, in other words. The problem was that the sauce was not good for the goose in the first place.
Jefferson’s vision allowed the moral authority of egalitarianism to challenge – not assume – the king’s fictive mandate from heaven. But when Jefferson argued for inalienable rights based upon human equality, the elitist Paul Ryans in the Second Continental Congress struck his words and replaced them with rights based upon supernatural authority.
In so doing, neither they, nor Paul Ryan, repudiated the medieval principle of Divine Right of Kings. Their reasoning does deny the idea of rule consecrated by divine authority, but rather usurps it.
In any event, the United States of America was not founded, as Ryan announced, upon some extra-legal “idea” of divine authority, but upon the Constitution. Unfortunately for Ryan, who as a professional politician has sworn an oath to defend the Constitution on numerous occasions, our actual founding document contains no reference to the will of “Nature” or “God” at all.
Nowhere does the Constitution say, nor even imply, that persons’ rights are “natural” nor “endowed by their Creator,” nor does it even hint that “rights” are unalienable, inalienable, inherent, natural or somehow sacrosanct. The Constitution does not pass upon the origins of rights.
And it does not confer any rights. As a matter of fact, the word “right” only appears once in the original body of the un-amended Constitution, and only then in reference to patents, of all things. In more bad news for folks like Ryan, neither the Constitution nor any of its Amendments mentions “government by the consent of the governed,” or “self-determination,” or “free enterprise.”
Ryan, in point of fact, is just making this stuff up and hoping the rest of us have never actually read the Constitution, or can distinguish it from the Declaration of Independence, which carries no authority of law.
American Anarchy vs. Fake Patriots
The Declaration of Independence inspired other independence manifestos, including the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the American feminists’ Declaration of Rights and Sentiments in 1848. With crushing irony, even the Vietnamese explicitly copied Jefferson’s masterpiece in their own declaration of independence from the French in 1945.
(Note: one year after the Vietnamese declaration, the United States of America – Ryan’s visionary champion of “self-determination” – re-imposed French colonial domination over the Vietnamese homeland.)
These revolutionary movements that copied our Declaration were the underdogs of their times. But they all eventually succeeded in overcoming the non-consensual rule imposed by the presumed “natural” or “God-given” prerogatives of state-sanctioned religion, male chauvinism, and Euro-American colonial overlord-ship.
They, like Paul Ryan, extolled the ideas of The Declaration. But what possible common ground do religious right-wingers and Ayn Rand cheerleaders such as Ryan & Company share with malcontent, progressive revolutionary movements whose anti-paternalist and anti-capitalist causes were so clearly at odds with Ryan’s neoconservative base? Perhaps the surprising word we are searching for is “anarchy.”
The word comes from the Greek anarchos, “having no ruler.” Anarchy is not a word that any respectable American is supposed to use nowadays to describe a credible political or social movement. This no-no word has associations with evil, alien, bomb-heaving zealots bent on the nihilistic destruction of the “American Way of Life,” apparently just for the hell of it.
Yet this is an odd taboo for a country whose national capital is named in honor of the most famous leader of the most celebrated bomb-heaving radicals of the 18th Century.
The long war these anarchists fought from 1775-1783 was… messy. American “Sons of Liberty” gangs nailed shut the doors of peaceable, but “politically incorrect” churches. The Crown set slaves free to fight their liberty-loving masters. Patriot forces unleashed preemptive genocidal military campaigns against unsuspecting Indians. British officers led loyalist Americans in atrocities against the own countrymen – and vice versa. Lord Howe’s invaders kidnapped and gang-raped New Jersey farm girls for days on end, while some unpaid Patriot volunteers were beheaded for desertion by Patriot freedom-fighters.
Atrocities, spies, mutinies, traitors, counterfeiters and war profiteering were commonplace. Though only a minority of Americans supported the revolution against aristocratic rule, the Revolution’s top leaders came from the colonial elite, and many of the best were foreign noblemen: Count Pulaski, Baron von Steuben, Lord Sterling, and Marquis de Lafayette. George Washington once personally threatened to shoot his own Patriot troops … and a few guys dumped some tea into Boston Harbor. Let’s not forget that.
If there were a war today that killed the same percentage of the American population, we would have over 3,000,000 graves to dig – ten times as many as we dug for combat deaths in World War II. If this level of disorganized carnage were visited upon America today, would we not be inclined to call it “anarchy?” And what should we think of the document that called us to arms?
The Declaration of Independence is nothing if not a profoundly “anti-ruler” screed. It declared the radical dissolution of the “political bands” which had bound the American colonies to the British Empire for more than 150 years, but it instituted no new government whatsoever to take its place. It is difficult to imagine a more anarchical statement.
But the government the Declaration despised was an astonishingly inequitable system based on aristocratic pretensions and class-based privilege. Even the English Parliament was held hostage to the hereditary wealth and membership of its Upper House of Lords.
The corrupt British government both chartered and owned stock in neo-global corporations such as the British East India Company, whose tea was dumped into Boston harbor, and the Hudson’s Bay Company, that once dominated the resources of an area of North America larger by far than the land mass of the Roman Empire at its height of power. But nowhere in the vast holdings of the British Empire could a man without property cast a vote.
When the truly radical American revolutionary Thomas Paine said, “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one” this was the system he meant. Indeed, it was the only kind of government that then existed: an oppressive racket of “God-endowed” kings and hereditary dynasties.
Backed by a proto-military-industrial complex whose sole purpose was to protect the profits of the investor class, these privileged parasites cared little for the toiling masses that physically produced the wealth of the Empire. They cared nothing at all for the millions of indigenous peoples whose lands, lives and cultures were decimated by a pre-planned colonial holocaust that was but a half-step removed from a policy of outright extermination.
This may sound familiar to contemporary Americans whose military-industrial-financial imperium spans the globe under the twin banners of Free Trade and American Exceptionalism. But however problem-ridden our civilization may seem today, it is immensely superior to the system in place the day our Constitution was ratified. Tossing out a king and founding a government were just the first baby-steps in our long journey toward domestic social justice.
Through the power of the democratic process, the American people first unshackled themselves from aristocratic colonial landlords and later from Gilded Age industrial robber-barons; from chattel slavery and child labor; from the criminalization of organized workers; from the disenfranchisement of women, minorities, and the un-propertied; from the specter of old-age squalor and hopeless poverty; from the degeneracy of company-store peonage and sweatshop labor; and from the futility of private-only education.
Having accomplished this much for ourselves, we finally made some small provisions to preserve for our posterity what little was left of our remaining physical resources.
Despite a Constitution which tolerated these gross inequities, and despite the profits that accrued to the wealthy who promulgated them, the American people cast away this rule of cruelty. Eschewing the orchestrated violence of elitist, trickle-down, anti-egalitarian leaders, common Americans achieved their goals legally – not naturally or supernaturally.
With man-made law the American people upheld equal rights – which originated, and continue to be held in common, in the minds of our fellow human beings. Truly “anarchic” Americans thus chose to live “without rulers” excepting ourselves. To re-direct the famous Patrick Henry line: “If this be anarchy, we made the most of it.” And it worked.
But that was then. Now, a media-multitude of freedom-fetishists such as Paul Ryan would hijack the genuine anarchy of American Progressivism by cherry-picking self-serving phrases from the Declaration of Independence. They borrow the language of violent Revolutionary elitism in order to wage an economic campaign against an American government that was reconfigured by a century of legal, democratic revolution.
They, as ever, are corporate-men who envision America only as a place worth owning, while they vilify those who envisioned America as a place that should be worth living in. It is enough to make one wish for a law against criminal farce.
These Revolutionary imposters would have Americans believe that any American democratic-collective institution is synonymous with Soviet state-socialism; that the licentiousness of the privileged few is a necessary precondition for the economic prosperity of the multitude who work for them; that their business corporations are legal persons – and worse yet – that the constitutionally protected rights of such fictitious persons come from some mumbo-jumbo agency of “Nature and God,” quite beyond the authority of a citizen in possession of a ballot.
Then, almost as an afterthought, the Ryans and the other Randistas among us offer the fraudulent consolation that opportunity is somehow more valuable than outcome – as though an equal turn at rolling the dice gives all players the same stake in the game.
“We promise equal opportunity,” Ryan comforted his audience, “not equal outcomes.”
This is the logic of sperm. Perhaps the biologists among us may offer congratulations. Predictable outcomes make opportunities valuable, not the other way around, and if Ryan does not understand this concept perhaps he should find a stockbroker to explain it to him.
Most grievous, these faux Revolutionaries claim some hocus-pocus “natural law” as superior to human rationality, which admittedly is imperfect, but is arguably the sole attribute elevating the human condition above that of asparagus. In so doing, the worshipers of irrationality simultaneously deny Jefferson’s moral vision that human equality is the sine qua non of any civil society that deserves the consent of the governed.
“Our rights come from Nature and God.” Can this be true simply because some guy said so? More important, is this really the “idea” upon which the American nation was either founded, or ought to exist today?
No, it is not, and we know why it is not.
Ryan’s “idea” is the fantasy of a self-indulgent class who, like many of our elitist forebears, would arrogate to themselves the authority to say whose rights will bloom and whose will wither on the vine. His grand idea is merely the scheme of anti-democratic con-men, of fake Patriots, who would rescue self-government – not from any enemy, foreign or domestic – but only from itself. As ever, it is the idea of men who would be kings.
Jada Thacker, Ed.D, is the author of Dissecting American History: A Theme-Based Curriculum. He teaches history at a private school in Texas. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org