Our Declaration of Independence recognized that we are all endowed with "certain unalienable rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Note that we are to be guaranteed the "pursuit," and not the happiness itself. The legitimate purpose of government was also made clear in that founding American document: "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." Clearly, the proper function of government was thought to be the protection our rights.
Despite the apparent clarity of our founding documents, a great debate has been raging in this country. The debate is twofold: first, what exactly are our rights, and, second, what therefore is the proper function of government?
To conservatives and libertarians, our rights are limited to freedoms of action. These would include speech, press, worship, assembly and the like – all freedoms of action. They would never include such things as guarantees of health care, housing, income, employment or any other forms of goods, services, or results, no matter how great the individual need, and certainly not at the involuntary expense of one's fellow citizens.
For progressives, our rights include not only freedoms of action, but also almost any other form of demonstrable human need, thus elevating needs to the stature of rights. From that perspective, it becomes the proper function of government to "help" people.
Our political campaigns have become contests to determine who is willing to promise the greatest smorgasbord of benefits to the greatest number of competing interest groups. As a result, businesses try to influence politicians with campaign money, while labor unions, the AARP and others large in number but short on cash try to gain influence by delivering large blocks of votes and free campaign workers. Sadly, the result is the same – a corrupt scramble for special favors and a great deal of "us against them" destroying the national fabric.
At this point in our nation's history, the progressive view is becoming dominant, and it is supported by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in Article 25 includes a long list of material goods and services as among the rights of people.
Both of our major political parties differ not so much in principle, but only as a matter of degree, in this regard. Only some elements in the conservative wing of the Republican Party and the Libertarians stand in opposition. They do not accept the proposition that one person's needs create a legitimate and legally enforceable claim upon other people's resources. They emphatically reject the idea that "a starving man has a natural right to his neighbor's bread." Most of them accept the moral idea that we ought to offer assistance to fellow citizens who, through no fault of their own, are in trouble, but only voluntarily, not as a matter of legal compulsion.
Progressives fear that voluntary giving will never be great enough to meet the needs of the millions of Americans who are facing financial difficulty and insist that a taxpayer funded social safety net is essential.
This writer suspects that once the sheer number of people deriving financial benefits from the public treasury exceeds the number of people paying taxes, then a critical mass will have been reached, and the result may be a period of class and intergenerational warfare unparalleled in our nation's history, and from which we may not emerge intact. And the opening shots have already been fired.
Joseph B. Filko lives in Williamsburg and has taught Economics and American Government.