All Commentary
Thursday, April 1, 1993

The Revolution That Was America

Individual liberty and an accommodating political order are relatively new in human history.

America is not a place but a revolution. No other country’s emergence in human history has ushered in a revolution as did that of the United States of America. The Russian “October” Revolution was nothing much in comparison, a mere changing of one bad regime to another, with different slogans from the old but without much change in substance. That is not how it happened with the American revolution.

Where America has made the biggest difference is in its political and legal constitution–how it was conceived, with what priorities. The central novelty of the American polity was its transfer of sovereignty from the society, community, state, nation, royal family, church, and all kinds of collectivities to the individual human being.

It isn’t free enterprise, or even private property, that counts for most in this political vision. It is the individual person’s life as a project to embark upon with complete authority—that’s what made the difference about America. Indeed, that is what nearly everyone who came to its shores perceived, if only simply or implicitly. Elsewhere the important things were the culture, people, race, religious sect, class, or whatnot. And the individual as an individual didn’t much matter.

Not according to the American dream. Sure, that dream has never been fully realized and was sometimes drastically subverted, as with slavery and military conscription, as well as compulsory education and all forms of extortion passing for taxation. But at least there were the words of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the breakthroughs in civil liberties, and a certain measure of freedom of trade. These fixed for millions here and abroad a vision of how a country might be, how its people might interact and embark on various missions either on their own or in voluntary cooperation with any number of their fellows.

An anecdote may help to underscore this point. Once, many years after I became a citizen of the United States of America, I went back to visit relatives in Europe. Sitting in a rather elegant Viennese restaurant with my mother, I engaged a Yugoslavian waiter—who recently left his homeland so as to seek prosperity abroad—in conversation about America. The chat went well and it was thus something of a shock when upon its conclusion my mother showed clear signs of irritation. She put it this way: “You shouldn’t have chatted away with a mere waiter. It’s embarrassing.”

This was very odd to hear for someone who came to America and lived here knowing that it is never embarrassing to speak to someone simply because of his origin, occupation, race, or sex. Of course, there are exceptions, but in the main the American mind is characterized by a basic kind of individualism, whereby what counts is the person one is, not one’s origins or status. Despite what some left-wing hecklers of America keep shrieking, there is no class structure in this country. For a long time the politically correct thing to do was to think of people as individuals, not as members of some superior or inferior group.

Although the ideal of individual liberty and the ensuing development of an accommodating political order are relatively new in human history, there has not been much progress in the development of either. Reactionary ideas have set in for some time now and have governed most people’s thinking, especially those who air their views in prominent forums—the electronic news media, widely reviewed books, major magazines, and newspapers.

Yet, it is also crucial that just returning to home base and carrying on as before cannot be the answer. The meaning of the right to individual liberty, while fundamentally stable throughout human affairs, needs to be interpreted for innumerable novel human situations. What freedom of speech meant for colonial America is not identical to what it means for the computer era. Private property rights are, essentially, having the final authority to determine what is to be done with what is one’s own, but owning a saw, a bazooka, an airplane, and an internal combustion engine do not all come to the same thing.

So as we consider the details of how the country may be turned around along lines that once made it the best of all countries in the world—with its flaws clearly being its departure from its own ideals—we cannot expect merely to repeat policies of the past. The polity of liberty needs to be worked out to meet new and different challenges. It needs to have a legal framework that does not stifle progress but adjusts to it.

The polity of liberty is every bit prepared to do so. This depends on no more than that we understand what human nature can achieve as far as political objectives are concerned, and that we are committed to help it along by taking responsibility for our own actions, accepting blame as well as praise for what we do, and not expecting government to live our lives for us.

—Tibor R. Machan


How the Government Plans to “Improve” Your Lab Tests

If the cost of tests done by your medical laboratory has only gone up by 300 percent or more, you’re one of the lucky ones.

Some patients will no longer be able to have lab tests at all, at least not without driving 100 miles.

The reason is the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Act (CLIA) of 1988. As of September 1992, all physicians’ office laboratories are required to be registered with the federal government. And if the laboratory does anything other than the simplest tests, payment of a registration fee is just the beginning. There are paperwork requirements, personnel standards, proficiency testing, more fees, and huge fines for violating any of the Byzantine requirements.

—Jane M. Orient, M.D.

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.