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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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The Single Most Important Battle in American History

The history of the United States of America has been plagued by clashes between two warring factions. Both sides posit themselves as champions of the people and the only salvation for America. They have fought many battles, with each side scoring victories. I am talking of the skirmishes between "republicanism" and liberalism. Liberalism is the system of political philosophy best summarized by Thomas Jefferson's oft-quoted, famous motto: "That government which governs best governs least." It is the system of laissez-faire, trans."Let us alone!" It's cardinal values are individual rights: life, liberty, and property. Everything in society and government must be subordinated to these rights. People should be left free to make their own decisions, their own choices without fear of interference from the government or other people, so long as they respect the rights of other people to do the same. When there exists a conflict between an individual's right and society's interests (as defined by the leadership of society), it is the individual who must prevail. Anything less would leave individuals at the mercy of the mob. This conception of the role of government stands in marked contrast to the notions of community propounded by "republicanism." In this theory, there exists a community that is independent and superior to the individuals that comprise it. It has its own values that may or may not be those of the individuals in the community. Further, if an individual, exercising a right which liberalism might grant, comes against the rights of the community, the "public good" must take precedence. The individual, it is said, acquires responsibilities along with the rights that the community grants him. This responsibility is to place the interests of the community above his own. It is quite obvious, then, where these theories differ. The clashes ensue whenever the rights of the individual conflict with the "rights" of the community. One faction sides with the individual and the other allies itself with the community and it is unlikely that this contentious issue will ever be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. It has been around, as I said, since the beginnings of American history: from the United States Constitution and the Charles River Bridge decision of the Supreme Court to the New Deal and the welfare state. It is with the first two disagreements that I will focus, but the fundamental issues that arose in them are still applicable and represent the same issues we face today. Ultimately, it is the ideas of liberalism that should win out since they are more firmly grounded in the metaphysical needs of man, while "republicanism" is contrary with these same requirements.

This last point definitely begs for some attention. If we accept the Law of Identity, first enunciated by the great Greek philosopher Aristotle, which says that an entity has a specific nature that it cannot contradict, and apply that to the entity man, we see that he has a specific nature, too. Survival is specific for man in that he must perform a certain set of actions in order to survive. He cannot acquire nutrition and energy using the method of survival of the plant, i.e., using chlorophyll. He must get food and consume it to provide the energy necessary for continued existence. Food, however, does not just appear in his mouth. He must engage in a certain species of action: self-generated, goal-directed action. The goal, in this case, being life itself. Life is the ultimate value because life is the precondition of all values and that to which all lesser goals are the means.This goal-directed action presupposes a process of thought, since it is necessary to detail within the mind the steps necessary to enact in order to acquire the food. Granted, the process of thought involved in such an effort is low-level, but it is most clear at this level. Because a process of thought is necessarily the precursor to any survival action, we can say that reason is man's means of survival. A man can act without thought, but it amounts to mere motion, and a man can think without action, but it amounts to mere daydreaming. So, more properly, we should say that reason is man's basic means of survival. On a more advanced level, this principle still applies. Even in a modern, capitalist economy, man must still struggle for survival. He must acquire the wealth by which to purchase nourishment and he must do it through a process of reason. From the above, we can derive the good. If man is goal-directed and life is his ultimate value, then life must also be the standard of value, of good and bad. That which furthers man's pursuit of life, the life proper to man, is the good and that which hinders his quest of life is the bad. Therefore, since man has a certain means of survival and the good is that which furthers survival, we can say that which allows reason to flourish uninhibited is also the good. This is the derivation of the rights to life, liberty, and property. Man's mind, his means of survival, cannot function if man is condemned to death at whim, i.e., if the right to life is not secured. Similarly, man's mind cannot function if its content or expression in action is limited or restricted, the right to liberty. Finally, man's mind is inextricable from man's body, they are an inseparable whole. Man must be able to occupy corporeal space. Moreover, man must be able to own the fruits of his mind's labor. How can life be pursued if one cannot own or ingest the food that one has acquired? Since man's mind is his means of survival, the restriction of it is certain death. This also hints at the fundamental evil, the initiation of force. The initiation of force is the only means by which man's mind may be limited or constricted. The government exists to secure and protect these three rights. The principle here is: you can do whatever your mind requires you to do so long as you do not infringe on other people's right to do the same through an initiation of force. The assertion that the government should change its role from policeman to highwayman is repulsive to the notion of individual rights and reason. A compelled mind is not free. This is the philosophical support for liberalism. It should be evident why the abrogation of individual rights, whether for personal or public gain, is antithetical to man's nature and can lead, ultimately, only to death and destruction. It is also instructive to understand the concept of "community" and not attempt to reify it: it is simply a collection of individuals on geographic grounds. It has no rights above or beyond the rights of the individuals located within it, nor can there be any responsibilities of individuals to the community that violate the individual's rights.

Of the two historical events, the Supreme Court decision in the Charles River Bridge decision more obviously reflects a clash between collective and individual rights. A bridge was chartered by the Massachusetts state government to connect Boston with Charlestown, a suburb across the Charles River. At the time, however, the ferry had exclusive rights to travel between the two towns. The Legislature decided that the ferry did not have a case and enacted legislation effecting the Charles River Bridge Corporation. It allowed the corporation the right to charge a specific toll to maintain the bridge and earn a profit. The charter did not specifically mention an exclusive right to transportation between the two towns. The bridge churned out profits for the proprietors and their shareholders and all was well with Boston. By the early eighteenth century, however, the town of Boston had doubled its population and the bridge's tolls were becoming burdensome and odious to the commerce of the two villages. Another corporation petitioned the Legislature to charter another bridge which would have only have tolls for six years, thereupon the bridge's ownership would revert to the state. The people supported the idea of a free bridge and the proprietor's complained loudly. The Legislature was ambivalent in its voting, but came out in favor of the free bridge supporters. The Charles River Bridge proprietors promptly petitioned a court in Massachusetts for an injunction to halt construction of the bridge. The case was decided in favor of the free bridge and the proprietors appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which eventually affirmed the lower court's decision. There were many arguments used by both sides for support. The proprietors asserted that their property was not only the actual bridge, but the income generated from the use of that bridge, i.e., the tolls. Since the state was going to charter a parallel bridge, alike in just about every respect except for the lack of a toll, this would deprive the proprietors of their property and would be a taking—deserving of reasonable compensation. Furthermore, the sanctity of contract guaranteed by the United States' Constitution was also in jeopardy. If the government creates a contract and later reneges on it without remuneration, the precedent established would be disastrous for all commercial activity and would decimate the economy. The opposing side argued that the public good demanded that another avenue be opened. That it would be a free avenue for all was an added bonus, regardless of any one individual's concerns about his property. The state grants charters and can retract them at will. It was the public's right to decide, through its voice in the elected representatives, whether, where, when, and how a new concourse could or should be constructed. They argued that the public had done so in choosing the Charles River bridge over the old ferrys and would do so again in the case of the railroads over the canals. They said that the proprietors' property would be nullified, but that, since it was for the greater good, it was justified. This was just the doctrine of "republicanism" with its placing the progress of the community over that of the individual. The Supreme Court of the United States decided in favor of the defendant, the Warren Bridge proprietors. Was this a just decision? Given the nature of man, we can see that the proprietors' rights were, in fact, being abrogated—albeit indirectly. But this conclusion depends on whether or not the proprietors had an exclusive right to the transportation across the Charles River granted by the State in the charter. I think that the proprietors implicitly thought that there was an exclusive right granted to them. Whenever there is a dispute between the rights of an individual and a collective, I think that it is important to uphold the right of the individual, in this case a legal individual (which is what a corporation is considered to be). As Ronald Dworkin, the famed constitutional scholar, says, it is crucial to take rights seriously. They are at the foundation of our form of government and way of life. As such, they are infinitely more important than any inconvenience caused by a toll.

The Constitution of the United States is a profoundly unique document in world history. It, for the first time, secures the rights of the individual and establishes checks against government abrogation of them. In the form of government it created, there reflected a profound understanding of the great peril of both majority rule and oligarchy. For example, the House of Representatives size is determined by the population of the individual states. This is a truly democratic institution, an organ for the people. The Senate's size is fixed by the number of states in the Union. It is a body for the states qua states. By themselves, they run the risk of either tyranny or mob rule, but together they establish a powerful check on government power. But the true source of individual versus collective rights is to be found in the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment, the long-held bulwark of personal freedom, says that any person can believe whatever he wants, say whatever he wants, read whatever he wants, and meet with anyone he wants. The "community interests" which have been outraged by this Amendment are many: the Quakers (who were not liked by many Christians), pornographers or blasphemers, and even the Sons of Liberty are or would have been protected by this Amendment, much to the consternation of the puritanical interests of many communities. The cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment is likewise important since, generally, the "community" seldom regards the convicted criminal with benevolence and often sanctions punishment in the most unjust means: stoning, lynching, mobs, et cetera. Finally, the Ninth Amendment states that, just because a right is not enumerated in the Constitution, does not mean that an individual does not possess it and cannot be denied it. There has been much pressure in American history to deny individuals rights because they are not specified in the Constitution. In the century following ratification, the Court upheld a mostly strict construction of the Constitution, thereby protecting individual rights. After that, however, the Constitution's defects began to show. Its protection of individual rights rested on a foundation that the Founding Fathers declared to be self-evident, but was anything but self-evident. This left openings which were subsequently exploited. It is with great trepidation that I say that the collective rights faction is steadily winning the battle over the United States' Constitution. Liberalism's defenders are few and ineffectual, while its opponents are legion. The only proper defense of individual rights is the defense elaborated in the second paragraph and the "republicans" will continue to win out until that foundation is adopted.

Throughout American history, liberalism and "republicanism" have contested the soul of the American nation. Up until the twentieth century, liberalism held primacy. But it had a fatal flaw. It shared the same premises of "republicanism" but in a much diluted form. It was inevitable that liberalism's defects would rear up. I have articulated the only hope for liberalism that could completely answer "republicanism's" charges. The philosophic climate is not such that this defense would gain any foothold in American culture, but it will someday. And then we will regain the glory of the Industrial Revolution…