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Saturday, September 7, 2019

What the Founding Mothers of Liberty Can Teach Us about True Rights and Responsibilities

The author Jim Powell famously identified these three women as essential to the modern libertarian movement: Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and Ayn Rand.

Universal healthcare. Affordable housing. Jobs for all. In the utopia promised by current presidential candidates, the government would guarantee these “rights” and more. Is it any wonder that voters are intrigued by the promises of contenders like Bernie Sanders?

As with most temptations, however, it is best to remember what our mothers would say—in this case, our founding mothers. Jim Powell famously identified these three women as essential to the modern libertarian movement: Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and Ayn Rand.

The founding mothers’ focus on individualism provides a model for reframing current political discourse to emphasize true rights and responsibilities.

Individual Rights

In her Textbook of Americanism, Rand notes,

The basic principle of the United States of America is Individualism. America is built on the principle that Man possesses Inalienable Rights.

Those rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—belong to individuals, not groups.

In the current candidates’ platforms, however, the “I” is subsumed into the “we,” and the “we” is always going to take from “them.” For instance, on his website, Bernie Sanders promises that “We can guarantee higher education as a right for all and cancel all student debt for an estimated $2.2 trillion. To pay for this, we will impose a tax of a fraction of a percent on Wall Street speculators who nearly destroyed the economy a decade ago.”

Sanders fails to recognize that Americans’ “right to life” means not only that someone cannot randomly murder an individual but also that society cannot insist that one live for others. Capitalism’s protection of individual rights distinguishes it from collectivism, the value system that informs current debates and platforms like Sanders’s.As Rand explains, the right to liberty means that one has the right to act and to own property. And the right to pursue happiness means one chooses one’s own purpose.

Rand argues in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal that the only social system that guarantees those individual rights is capitalism. Under this system in its true form,

human relationships are voluntary. Men are free to cooperate or not, to deal with one another or not, as their individual judgments, convictions, and interests dictate.

They can even disagree, and private property protects that right.

In these respects, capitalism’s protection of individual rights distinguishes it from collectivism, the value system that informs current debates and platforms like Sanders’s.

Rights vs. Desirable Goals

Sanders and others justify redistributing wealth by recasting desirable goals as “rights.” Seniors, Sanders argues, have the “right” to a secure retirement. The young, he insists, have the “right” to a college education. The disabled have the “right” to work. Once elected, Sanders promises, he will “guarantee” those rights.

This abuse of government power runs counter to the Founding Fathers’ intentions. The Constitution guarantees our inalienable rights by limiting the power of society over individuals. Individual rights are “inalienable” in the sense explained by Isabel Paterson in The God of the Machine: “for alienated means passing into the possession of another.” An individual’s life cannot be enjoyed by another.

Crucially, Paterson observes,

Even the right to own property cannot be alienated or transferred; though, a given item of property can be. If one man’s rights are infringed, no other man obtains them; on the contrary, all men are thereby threatened with a similar injury.

The presidential candidates obscure this threat by tempting voters to seek their supposed benefit (including a guaranteed job) at the expense of others. Paterson outlines the political process at work:

Nobody is presumed to have the right to demand employment from the government, because it is well understood that government “jobs” are non-productive. However, if he has a vote, the citizen without property has a means of bribing the government to make a job for him, by expropriating the property of another citizen. Such bribery depends entirely upon the ownership of private property by other citizens.

We are correct to defend our inalienable rights, but we have no right to the wealth of others.

Individual Responsibility

Savvy voters will reject the presidential candidates’ specious plans, recalling the wisdom of Rose Wilder Lane in The Discovery of Freedom: “You alone are responsible for your every act; no one else can be.” The government cannot and should not attempt to solve all of our problems. In fact, Lane insists,

In demanding that men in Government be responsible for his welfare, a citizen is demanding control of his affairs by men whose only power is the use of force.

Furthermore, we should reject government force in relation to debt-spending. Lane argues that this point applies regardless of the party in power:

The American who leaves Government to the politicians, permitting or urging the men of his party, when they are in office, to increase their power and use it upon other Americans for his benefit, and howling when men of the other party in office increasing their power and squeezing him for the benefit of other Americans, is trying to evade his responsibility.

To limit government spending is just to both our society and future generations.

Individual Thought

Such resistance is challenging because presidential candidates use what Rand calls “The Argument from Intimidation.” In The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand explains this argument’s appeal to self-doubt:

It is used in the form of an ultimatum demanding that the victim renounce a given idea without discussion, under threat of being considered morally unworthy. The pattern is always: “Only those who are evil (dishonest, heartless, insensitive, ignorant, etc.) can hold such an idea.”

This strategy is apparent in Bernie Sanders’s August 15 tweet about senior healthcare:

The implication is that only voters who are heartless could reject Medicare for All. Denying this beneficent plan would be the equivalent of condemning seniors to sell their sofa and family china.

For the thinking individual, Sanders’s argument elides the issues of who would pay for Medicare for All and whether it would force those taxpayers into poverty themselves.

A Revolutionary Idea

In The Discovery of Freedom, Lane argues that out of all the people living on this earth,

only a few have ever understood the [American] Revolution. Not even all Americans understand the fact that individuals control the only energy that makes the human world.

Now is the time to remind our fellow citizens of that fact. As our founding mothers insisted, only individuals have rights, and all of us have the same rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To protect them, we have to shift the political conversation back to those founding principles.

  • Caroline Breashers is a Professor of English at St. Lawrence University.  Previous publications have appeared in EconLib, The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Modern Philology, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Aphra Behn Online, Script & Print, The International Journal of Pluralistic Economic Education, and Philological Quarterly. Her book Eighteenth-Century Women’s Writing and the “Scandalous Memoir” was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2017.