The Claremont Institute seeks to restore the principles of the American founding to their former position of preeminence in American public life. Surprisingly, some conservatives have doubts about that project.
The Declaration of Independence states the founding principles in this way:
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.
In many conservatives today these words arouse contradictory feelings. On the one hand they admire the Founding Fathers and therefore respect the Declaration. On the other hand, they fear that the problem in America today is that we have too much equality, too many rights, and too much democracy. Liberals, after all, are always talking about how much they care about the rights of women and the poor, how we need more equality, how we must take power out of the elites and put it into the hands of the oppressed.
We at the Claremont Institute do not share the conservative ambivalence about the principles of the Declaration. We believe that liberty and equality and rights are entirely good, as those terms were understood by our Founders. A people that is a "good people" (as we called ourselves in the Declaration) cannot have too much of these good things. The problem today is not that we have too much equality, too much liberty, too many rights. The problem is that we are well along in a process of abandoning equality properly understood, and liberty and rights properly understood.
I will explain this from three points of view.
First, our liberties are contracting, not expanding. Anyone in the business world knows this is true of property rights. What is not as well known is that free speech, freedom of religion, and many other freedoms have also been substantially reduced in the twentieth century, especially in the past twenty-five years.
Second, our liberties are also contracting in the area of government by consent — by elected officials accountable to the people. Our country is governed less democratically now than it was in 1965.
Third, our liberties are also contracting because for several decades government has been in the business of undermining the conditions of freedom — namely, morality, family, and faith.
Let me give examples to explain in each case how this decline of democracy, equality, and rights is taking place.
Consider free speech. Conservatives today sometimes complain that we have an excess of free speech. But let us focus on the one area that the Founders regarded as the most important purpose of free speech: enabling the public to make an informed decision about candidates for election. In 1971, for the first time in American history, government began to take this right away from a large class of Americans — those who cooperate or consult with candidates for public office. Such people are permitted to spend no more than $1,000 explaining to the public why their friends deserve to be elected. This campaign finance act was passed in order to limit the influence of people with money in elections. The idea behind this law was that since poor people can't afford to publish their views, the wealthy should be severely limited in what they can publish.
What would the Founders have thought of a law punishing people for publishing their views on an election contest? This is what the Revolution was all about: government would not be permitted to say who would be permitted to publish and who forbidden. That had been the law in Old England. Such laws violate the right to liberty, and they are anti-democratic. John Adams wrote, "If the press is to be stopped and the people kept in ignorance, we had much better have the first magistrate and senators hereditary."
The result of campaign finance laws is to "stop the press" — to cut down on public information about candidates who are not favored by the established media, the major networks and the leading daily newspapers. What candidates lose out under our campaign finance laws? Those who challenge the status quo, who oppose big government — in many cases, conservatives.
Second example. America doesn't have too much democracy, as many conservatives believe. It has too little. Government by the people has in a significant degree been replaced over the past century, especially in the past thirty years, with government by so-called experts far removed from responsibility to the electorate. Democracy is not gone, but it is much further eroded than most people are aware.
This has happened in two ways. One, power has been taken out of the hands of private citizens and local communities, and shifted to more centralized and more remote bodies, such as state and national governments. Two, within these governments, power has been increasingly shifted away from elected officials (president, governor, legislatures) to unelected officials (bureaucracies, agencies, and courts).
One example. How did we get wetlands regulation? As it happens, government got the authority to regulate wetlands without passing any law on the subject. The relevant portion of the Clean Water Act simply requires permits "for the discharge of dredged or fill materials into the navigable waters" of the U. S. Obviously, a swamp, a pothole, or a bog is not "navigable." Yet federal agencies, working in tandem with federal courts, have claimed, with a straight face, that "navigable waters" include all the "wetlands" in the U. S. This now includes, according to one set of federal regulations, land that has standing water on it for as little as 14 days a year, and land that accidentally becomes soaked by irrigation runoff or from undersized or clogged culverts.
This wetlands example illustrates how policy is often formed by officials — courts and agencies — far removed from the people. This policy process defies not only the Founders' principle of private and local control, but also the Constitution's requirement that we be governed only by laws to which our elected representatives give their consent. It also illustrates the government's contempt for the property rights of owners, who in some cases have been imprisoned for cleaning up, or building on, land they own.
So much for our rights, and government by consent.
Let us turn now to our third theme, the government's assault on the conditions of freedom — religion, family, and morality.
The Founders believed that although freedom is every man and woman's birthright, a self-governing community that secures freedom is rare. The Founders were the heirs of two thousand years of European history in which there was little or no protection of individuals rights, and little or no government by the consent of the governed.
In order for men to be able to govern themselves and not abuse their freedom, they need to have the habits and convictions that enable them to behave responsibly. Madison once wrote, with his typical tough-mindedness, that if men do not have sufficient self-restraint, "Nothing less than the chains of despotism can keep them from destroying and devouring one another." But where do these moral virtues of moderation and justice come from? The Founders' answer: from knowledge of the rights of mankind, but above all from religion, which teaches us to restrain our passions and to respect the rights of others. Thomas Jefferson — the Founder most outspoken in his doubts about traditional Christianity — was sensible enough to write in his Notes on Virginia that the liberties of a people will no longer be secure if they cease believing that their liberty is the gift of God.
Today's government is in a whole host of ways anti-religious. When the Supreme Court discusses religion, it uses words like "coercive," "divisive," "danger," and "irrational." In the name of the Bill of Rights, the Court has banned religion from public schools. Yet the same Congress that passed the Bill of Rights in 1789 also passed a law encouraging the teaching of religion in public schools in the Northwest Territories — the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Government's ban on God is particularly striking in light of this fact: the Declaration of Independence says liberty is our inalienable right only because we are "endowed" with that right by our Creator ("created equal"). Our principles (religious liberty) supposedly require us never to breathe a word to school children about where those principles come from. But if we refuse to acknowledge that foundation of our principles in "the laws of nature and of nature's God," what do our principles rest on? If liberty is not the gift of God, it must be the gift of government. But what government gives, government may take away. As Jefferson said: without God, liberty will not last.
On the same topic of government hostility to morality and religion, consider the family. Today, even liberals see that family breakdown is a problem. It is the direct or indirect cause of the vast majority of violent crime, child abuse, battering and exploitation of women, and much more.
When government changed its policy on welfare in the 1960s, it in effect began to subsidize divorce and single motherhood. Government's generosity made it possible, for the time in American history, for large numbers of irresponsible women to get no-fault food, housing, cash, medical care, job training, higher education, and more. The new welfare policies made many males among the working poor a bad bargain for quite a few women who would have married them — and stayed married to them — before the 1960s.
At the same time that government has undermined the family by its perverse economic incentives, it has promoted the separation of sex from love and marriage. From sex education to legalized abortion, from pregnant unmarried cheerleaders to homosexual rights, from no-fault divorce to free condoms — government sends young men and women the same message: just do it! Sex exists for your personal fun and pleasure. Don't worry about the consequences — if the fetus is inconvenient, kill it; if you would rather bring it to term, we'll pay you to raise it.
Forgotten is the older view: that sex is part of the plan of God and nature for your life; that its noblest use is for the generation of children who will grow up under the daily harmonious guidance of a loving mother and father; that it is a fine thing to send children out into the world, so that they too can have the opportunity to engage in the pursuit of happiness and to polish and perfect their souls, just as the best of their forebears have done from time immemorial.
America's freedoms have eroded, her families are disintegrating, and her women and children are subjected to levels of rape, exploitation, neglect, and abuse that America's Founders would never have tolerated. We can trace these problems to the abandonment of the principles of the Declaration of Independence by our elites, and increasingly by the people themselves.
The Claremont Institute is devoted to the recovery of this healthy core of the older American tradition. Let us put our shoulders to the wheel, each of us doing what he can in the common enterprise of restoring "one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all."