A Modern Reflection on Founding Principles

Updated: May 28

Because Google Adsense deemed this website to have too little content for ads, I'll be posting my top 25 undergraduate papers. This term paper in my second political thought class was one of the best grades I ever received for a term paper.



Dalhousie University

POLI 2420

March 14th 2018



The ever polarizing and increasingly interesting United-States had quite the unique inception. Declaring its independence with perceived rebels who had Lockean and classical liberal ideas on the mind such as limited-government and consent of the governed. They wrote that Americans be entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That these truths had been “self-evident”. But what does it mean for those truths to be self-evident? And given the fact that the nation is centuries old, how well does the modern form of the nation represent its founding principles?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident.”(1) Just what are these truths and how could they be so self-evident as to be the founding principles of a nation? These principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were claimed to be self-evident. But how so? It is because they were based on the analytical empiricism of the desire to be alive, happy and free.(2) John Locke had quite the influence on founders such as Thomas Jefferson.(3) Other Lockean ideas common among the founders were property rights and limited government along with consent of the governed(4) were part of the reason for the American revolution to begin with, therefore they are equally as important. However, when discussing founding American philosophy, there is one phrase that instantly pops out that may be the most important of all.

When thinking of founding principles, one of the first quotes the mind harkens to is the phrase “all men are created equal”. A reflection upon the equality in today’s America is of the upmost importance when comparing to the founding principles. After the women’s rights movement in the early 20th century and the civil rights movement in the mid 20th century, by law, everyone is generally treated equally politically. Everyone besides those in prison have the right to vote as well both an African American male and a female have won the popular vote in presidential elections.(5) There may be some fair gripes about voter discrimination(6) however, given that all citizens (provided they are not in prison) have the right to participate in the nations democracy, it would be reasonable to regard this area as a success if success is to be judged as the nation sticking to its founding principles. Now begins a closer look at the large three entitlements that the founders presented.

The first of the large three is life. This may either be the most difficult or most easy principle to describe depending on how it is interpreted. Put in a blunt sense - are descenders and political opponents being murdered in modern day America? Thankfully No. Interpreted in a different way - are American politicians trying everything they can to preserve human life? The answer to that question would also be no given the number of politicians and citizens support the death penalty(7) while the statistic of false convictions remains above zero percent.(8) Also, the number of Americans who die every year due to lack of health insurance is not zero.(9) So, it remains quite obvious given such data that there may still be some work to be done at assuring Americans the right to life. Then again, what is life without liberty?

The passionate cries of a particular vocal group self labelled as “libertarians” will immediately come out when it comes time to discuss this principle. Without a doubt, they’d point to the fact that being a libertarian is somewhat of a special rare identity among elected officials in the United-States. If the rarity of the moniker of libertarian among elected officials weren’t enough to stir this crowd, the fact that it remains illegal to ingest a stimulant plant linked to almost no large negative health effects(10) is reason to suspect that liberty has taken a back seat in the country. The legalization of marijuana remains a hot topic debate among elected officials despite being the easiest of liberties that could be granted.(11) There are other things that may be pointed to as well such as the surprising fact that it wasn’t until fairly recently that homosexuals were given the right to marry on the federal level.(12) Of course, firearm liberties remain intact, so the founders may have been happy to learn of that. The bottom line is, despite the United-States having a moniker of freedom, there is much to be improved on for the nation to be defined by the term “liberty”. After all, which nation has the highest prison rate per capita on the planet?(13) That brings us to the last of the trio of entitlements.

Last in the poetic trio is the highly interpretable “pursuit of happiness”. Generally, it is interpreted to mean the ability of self-mastery and self-improvement.(14) Self-mastery is a term for self-control. This is another classical liberal value as personal choice is always preferred among classical liberal theory. While personal choice may be another way of phrasing liberty, it could also be a statement about democracy itself. When diving into the state of democracy in America today, one must not solely gander to the presidential elections. When taking a hard look at the workplace in Europe, then turning back to the workplace in the United-States, it becomes fairly obvious that the United-States is a nation where democracy seldom exists in the workplace in comparison to European states.(15) This concept is one that the founders would have appreciated given their love for personal choice.(16) However, the United-States elects its local supreme court members(17), as well as its senators after the 17th amendment(18). Which is something that Canadians do not have the liberty of doing. As far as self-improvement goes, America has a word of mouth reputation for being the land of opportunity. That reputation comes from the ability for individuals to make more money than they could ever spend in a lifetime if they invest properly (as demonstrated by the lifetime of Bill Gates) and that ability is also granted from its relatively low tax rates.(19) So, as far as the pursuit of happiness goes, modern day America does a respectable job.

Now, judging modern day America on its founding principles does not have to be restricted to the language found in its constitution. As previous mentioned it is no secret that a bulk of these principles were derived from writings made by philosophers such as John Locke.(20) A large emphasis of the writings of John Locke’s liberalism happened to be focused on the right to private property. So how do private property rights hold up in modern day American? It may be reasonable to suspect John Locke would be fairly satisfied if he could look through a window into todays present time. Citizens have the ability to purchase private property, something that is not under debate among elected officials. What would make Locke most content would be the realization that government institutions cannot search private residence without proper warrants.(21) After all, Locke was a classical liberal and small government was an essential part of the ideology. Limited government is also subject to a judgement as a Lockean principle to which the founders took to heart considering their disdain for the overreaching powers of monarchy.(22)

That premise of “limited government” would also be one of the most difficult to evaluate. What makes this principle difficult to evaluate is the relativity. How would the founders see today’s American form of governance? Would they be shocked and immediately note the governments large involvement? Or would they be content that it remains relatively well checked and absent from every day interaction? Perhaps a little of both. However, the crucial point here would be to realize that any growth in the power of government has happened for a reason. That reason should not be assumed to simply be for malicious and power hungry self-interest among elected officials. Societies change with time. Therefore, new rules must be passed to accommodate changes. It is important to note that founder Thomas Jefferson was fond of the idea of changing a state’s constitution with the times.(23) New regulations have emerged in the banking industry as well as pertaining to firearms in certain areas over the centuries. Should those regulations be seen as a negative as far as an increase in the government’s power if you are a classical liberal? Or should they be seen as a necessity with the changes brought about by the development of billion dollar multinational banks and new assault weapons? Both had not existed at the time of the nation’s founding. The function of today’s economy is literally centuries ahead of the nation’s founding. The governing body must enforce regulations and create new ones in this ever-increasing complex world to ensure stability. Interestingly enough when evaluating the principle of limited government, the nation has relatively small tax rates, but one is not allowed to do such a simple act as smoking marijuana. So, it appears it appears to have quite limited government when it comes to economics, but a fairly authoritarian government when it comes to civil liberties. Speaking of civil liberties, there is also a very noteworthy area worth pointing out.

Potentially what would have appalled the founders the most are the findings of NSA surveillance that could be violating the fourth amendment rights of Americans. Harvard graduate Bruce Fein spoke to the House Judiciary Committee in 2011 about this citing how James Otis and Thomas Paine both feared unjust prosecution by government on its citizenry. Citizens being spied on during time on their own private property having private conversations with other individuals on their private property would without a doubt be seen as an overstepping of government authority by the founders.(24) This development of perceived security on the part of the US government came from the patriot act from 2001.

Again, one should not assume the intentions of the governing body to be doing such a thing solely to be malicious and power hungry. Clearly the intention is to prevent terror attacks on domestic soil.(25) However, if limited government is going to be assumed to be a founding principle, the example of NSA surveillance is an example of a very authoritarian action. Then again, would it be justified if the majority of the nation approves of it? Such a question brings us to the final Lockean/classical liberal point to evaluate on modern day America.

The final point of Lockean liberalism worth discussing is the idea of consent of the governed. Let us not forget that one of the reasons for the American revolution was companies about taxation without representation.(26) With that being said, how does representation look in today’s American political system? Interesting enough, there is somewhat of a contradiction at work. Individuals in the state of Wyoming pay the same federal taxes that individuals in the state of California do. However, California has 68 times the people that Wyoming does, while both states have the same representation in the federal senate. A reminder is in order that all federal legislation must go through the senate before being signed into law by the president. So, while it appears that Californians should be screaming about their immense taxation without representation as a whole in a federal body such as the senate, we must remember that the Senates justification is its way of creating gridlock to ensure political stability. The house of representatives remains the proportional federal body. Be that as it may, it remains interesting that a nation created upon the idea of its inhabitants being taxed without proper representation, had its founders create a non-proportional body which major federal legislation must pass through.(27) If we are to ask the question on whether todays current American political system reflects upon its founding principles as it pertains to taxation with proper representation, not much has changed. The house still exists, the senate still exists and of course the president still exists. Not to mention, citizens also pay state taxes and local taxes which also have their own governing bodies. Therefore, this final area would receive a resounding check.

To summarize, there were seven classical liberal principles which the United-States could easily be argued to be founded upon that were compared. The founders claimed the truths to be self-evident because humans prefer personal choice, life, liberty and happiness over their opposites. However, if we look at modern day America through the lens of the seven principles mentioned, there are numerous things to take note of. Equality has taken massive strides after the women’s rights and civil rights movements. Although minorities may be underrepresented, everyone is given the right to vote. The first of the poetic trio of entitlements was life, the death penalty still exists in the United-States and many Americans die every year from lack of health insurance so there is a lot to be done in that area. While the United-States likes to pride itself on liberty, incarceration rates are abysmal and it remains illegal to smoke marijuana. On the other hand, firearm rights are very high relative to other modern nations. The final of the trio was the pursuit of happiness which generally means self-improvement and self-control. The ability to make fortunes in America is quite high, however work place democracy is low compared to European nations. On the other hand, local supreme court judges and senators are elected, whereas in Canada they are appointed. As far as limited government goes, the US government has had a massive increase in power, however that is simply due to the necessary change with time. Semi-automatic rifles and billion dollar multinational corporations hadn’t existed when the nation was founded, therefore they must be regulated. One potential area of overstepping of power might be the NSA surveillance of recent years from the patriot act. But then again what matters most is the consent of the governed. The founders did put the disproportionate senate in place. But Americans are also taxed at 4 levels (city, county, state, federal) which all have their own elected governing bodies and again local supreme court members and senators are elected unlike Canada. All in all, the United-States has done a respectable job at keeping true to its founding principles. But in the end, surely most scholars would advocate that systems in place should be based on empiricism and consent over simply tradition.


Bibliography



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1 - The Declaration of Independence

2 - Dish, T. D. (2008, January 27). "Self-Evident"

3 - Griffith, M. F. (1997). John Locke’s influence on American government and public administration. Journal of Management History

4 - Locke, J. (1689). The second treatise of civil government

5 - History.com Staff. (n.d.). Presidential Elections

6 - II, V. R. (2017, February 18). How Voter ID Laws Discriminate

7 - Jiang, S., Lambert, E. G., Wang, J., Saito, T., & Pilot, R. (2010). Death penalty views in China, Japan and the U.S.: An empirical comparison. Journal of Criminal Justice

8 - Drehle, D. V. (2014, April 28). US Death Penalty Wrongful Convictions Executions

9 - Harvard Gazette. (2017, May 06). New study finds 45,000 deaths annually linked to lack of health coverage

10 - Sample, I. (2016, April 15). What are the true risks of taking cannabis?

11 - Lopez, G. (2015, March 09). Marijuana is illegal under federal law even in states that legalize it

12 - Vogue, A. D., & Diamond, J. (2015, June 27). Supreme Court rules states must allow same-sex marriage – CNNPolitics

13 - PrisonStudies.org. (n.d.). Highest to Lowest - Prison Population Total

14 - Boucher, D., & Kelly, P. J. (2003). Political thinkers: from Socrates to the present, page 192

15 - Pausch, M. (2013). Workplace Democracy. The Innovation Journal, 19

16 - InTheseTimes, D. M. (2013, September 2). America's 200-Year-Long Battle for Workplace Democracy

17 - BattlotPedia. (n.d.). State supreme courts

18 - “Electing Senators.” U.S. Senate: Electing Senators

19 - TradingEconomics. (2018). List of Countries by Personal Income Tax Rate

20 - USHistory.org. (n.d.). Foundations of American Government

21 - Miller, S. (n.d.). The History of the Search Warrant

22 - Boucher, D., & Kelly, P. J. (2003). Political thinkers: from Socrates to the present, page 185

23 - GoodReads. (n.d.). A quote by Thomas Jefferson

24 - B. F. (2012, October 29). The USA PATRIOT Act: Dispelling the Myths

25 - ACLU. (n.d.). Surveillance Under the Patriot Act

26 - Kelly, M. (2017, August 3). The Root Causes of the American Revolution

27 - United-States, Senate. (n.d.). Senate Chronology