Just One Breach

by | Sep 26, 2021 | POLITICS

Ayn Rand held that moral principles must be adopted as absolutes and that a single compromise will subvert a principle, as such. This holds true for the actions taken by nations as well as by individuals.  The founder’s failure to faithfully abide by their own "self-evident" truths offers a perfect illustration of what follows from a single breach of fundamental and guiding principle.

Ayn Rand was not the first philosopher to urge men to live not range-of-the-moment, but by finding and studiously following a set of firm moral principles, aka. virtues.  Aristotle, Cicero and Christian authors from Aquinas’ forward spoke of four principal virtues a successful life on earth required.  They were prudence, courage (fortitude), temperance (moderation), and justice.  Modern Christian moralists, such as C. S. Lewis, continued the tradition.[1] Once adopted, these vital principles were meant to shape our daily choices and actions.

In “The Objectivist Ethics,” Ayn Rand identified seven inter-connected virtues that men must adopt to live well.[2]  They are rationality, productiveness, pride, independence, honesty, integrity and justice.  Each represents more than what ordinary usage might suggest.  For example, honesty means more than not lying to others.  It is a determination to see the world as it is, never pretending that what isn’t is or that what is isn’t.  How can we deal with reality successfully if we won’t see it for what it is?  Reason, purpose and self-esteem are the cardinal values (and unavoidable human needs) which these virtues, alone, allow human beings to obtain.

Rand’s 20th-century revision certainly offered students a more precise and comprehensive idea of what a truly moral life and pursuit of happiness demand.  The unprincipled life, the life that evades moral concerns altogether, finds its practitioners either (1) doing whatever they feel like doing, because they feel like doing it or (2) doing what others expect them to, because others expect them to do it  In this case, individuals fail to stand on their own feet, look at the world through their own eyes, and follow the path independent judgment reveals.  The “second-hander” prefers to either tell others or let himself be told what to think and how to act (willfully evading reason, reality, or even plain common sense).

Ayn Rand went on to add a critical clarification. She warned that a single breach or violation of a moral principle necessarily obliterates the principle.  As Leonard Peikoff carefully explained in OPAR, it’s not enough to live by principle, the principles we live by must be adopted as firm, unyielding absolutes.[3]

That applies to individuals, but it also applies to nations and the actions they choose to take.  Personal morality aside, the American founding era offers a perfect illustration of how a single breach of accepted principle can cause the principle to be lost for good.

For all the commentaries on the founding era published over the past 200+ years, historical research has failed to say precisely how limited limited government was meant to be.[4]  It’s worth another look.  America’s founders grounded their republican science of politics in an inviolable truth.  For them, it was “self-evident” that all men are created equal.  John Locke put it like this:  “There is nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to the same advantages of nature and use of the same faculties should be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection.”  With or without government, Locke pointed to an immutable law of nature.  Putting aside any reference to a creator God, he wrote, “and reason which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.”[5]

All men are created equal and designed to simply live and let live.  Unfortunately, some will prefer to prey on their neighbors and plunder their way through life.  To escape the predicament, men establish a government.  While it is true that “governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” there is only so much to which the governed can consent.  Every person has not only a right to what is his, but a right to defend his life, liberty, and possessions from any predator who would wantonly take these for his own.  The governed can agree not to take the law into their own hands, but to cede their natural right of self-defense to the government and rely on an objective rule of law to redress all grievances.  Political agencies are thereby imbued with the power to protect all in the enjoyment of what is theirs.   The founders’ government was thus meant to be a PROTECTOR.  Since no person has a lawful power to take away or give away what belongs to another, that is a power no government can rightfully claim or come by.  The founders’ government could not confer benefits on some at others’ expense.  Equal creation demanded equal protection.  As John Locke wrote:

For nobody can transfer to another more power than he has in himself; and no Body has an absolute Arbitrary Power . . . over any other, to . . . take away the Life or Property of another . . . . [And] having in the State of Nature no Arbitrary Power over the Life, Liberty or Possessions of another, but only so much as the Law of Nature gives him to the preservation of himself . . . this is all he doth, or can give up to the Commonwealth . . . so that the Legislative can have no more than this.[6]

Slavery and the status of women aside, the federal government abandoned the commitment to human equality early on.  It began conferring benefits on some segments of its white population at the expense of others.  The corporate welfare state can be traced to the second bill signed into law by America’s first president.  The Tariff Act of 1789 authorized Congress to impose duties on imported goods not only to pay the expense of government and retire the public debt (which powers the Constitution granted), but “for the encouragement and protection of manufactures.”  The Constitution made no such allowance. However meager the first duties may have been, the nation’s first tariff act offered a principle-shattering precedent that would be repeated over and over again.

A long succession of protective tariffs bearing ever-harsher duties followed.[7]  Behind the tariff walls domestic manufactures could raise their prices and augment their profits.  Planters and farmers, however, would still sell their goods in politically “unprotected” markets, but pay more for the tools, utensils, weapons, textiles, etc. they purchased.  Meanwhile, without the profits a brisk transatlantic trade once furnished, the rich harvest of American produce found fewer outlets in once-bountiful overseas markets.  This resulted in hardships for farmers and planters across the nation’s heartland.  No less affected were shipbuilders, seaport merchants and thousands employed in the maritime and carting trades.  National banks and internal improvement projects furnished additional schemes of public plunder for stock and land speculators.  In direct defiance of free trade and laissez-faire capitalism, well-connected special interests could buy influence and enjoy commercial privileges and even full-blown monopoly rights in sundry American locales.[8]

Because the “self-evident” truths inscribed in the Declaration of Independence were not expressly inserted into the Constitution and because vague, undefined language authorizing Congress to promote the “general welfare” and do whatever it might deem “necessary and proper” for carrying into execution its “enumerated” powers, the founding principles would not survive the founding era.

How did we get from that day to this?  Once the nation decided that some of its citizens had a right not to go out and get, but to lobby Congress and be given, it faced two daunting questions:  Who else should be given?  And how much should everyone get?  There was only one answer:  politics.   The establishment rode into town during the Republic’s earliest days.  Influence-peddling became a systemic part of American politics as schemes of public plunder for private advantage proliferated on all levels of government.

What’s the point?  Federal spending for FY 2020 is currently estimated at $4,8 trillion.  In comparison, the government’s expenditures for national defense, homeland security, and the administration of justice came to $747 billion.  Less than 17¢ of every dollar Washington spent in FY 2020 went to protect Americans in the enjoyment of their lives, liberties, and possessions.[9]   Insofar as the federal government continues to be a protector, it is merely moonlighting. And all it took was just one breach.

References

[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1980, orig. 1952) pp. 69-87.

[2] Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: The New American Library 1964) pp. 1-34)

[3] Leonard Peikoff, OPAR: The Philosophy of Aun Rand (Dutton, 1991). pp. 262-5.

[4] Jefferson’s truths may have seemed “self-evident” to 18th-century Americans, but they were anything but self-evident.  Building on formidable theories of metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, Ayn Rand finally validated the Lockean/Jeffersonian conception of man, individual rights and government.  See in The Virtue of Selfishness “Man’s Rights” and “The Nature of Government.”

[5] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing Company, 1980) §4, 6 (every published edition of Locke’s Second Treatise features paragraph numbers (i.e., §).

[6] Ibid., §135.  For a fuller discussion detailing precisely how limited Locke’s political theory rendered government’s just powers, see Jerome Huyler Locke In America: The Moral Philosophy of the Founding Era (Lawrence, KS, The University of Kansas Press, 1995, 2000) especially Ch 5, “The True Original Extent and End of Civil Government.”

[7] See especially Sidney Ratner, The Tariff In American History (New York: D Van Nostrand Company 1972)

[8] See especially Zaphyr Teachout, Corruption in America:  From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2004, Robert Sobel, Panic on Wall Street:  A History of America’s Financial Disasters (New York: Collier Books 1968). For the early introduction of corruption in the federal government, see Jerome Huyler Locke In America, op. cit.: pp. 279-91.

[9] U. S. Historical Tables of Budget Outlays by Agency compared to overall annual budget outlays.

Jerome Huyler has a PhD. in political science and is a retired assistant professor who taught courses in intellectual history, moral and political philosophy, and American political thought at Seton Hall Univesity. He is the author of Locke In America: The Moral Philosophy of the Founding Era, and has recently completed a sequel entitled, The Tragedy of Our History: How the Patriot's America Became the Progressive's America. Dr. Huyler's website can be accessed at JeromeHuyler.com.

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