Carl Graham Commentary: “A Revolution in Thinking”

It’s fitting that my first visit with you as a guest commentator is right near Independence Day. The mission of my organization, the Montana Policy Institute, embraces those Enlightenment ideals of freedom and liberty that our day of founding so embodies. So I get to kill two birds with one stone by appropriately recognizing the important principles that surround this holiday, and simultaneously introducing myself and the point of view I’ll be representing in this and future commentaries.

And we’ll need that brief introduction. I’m going to be talking to you from a perspective and putting out ideas that will be new to many of you, or at least that many of you will consider not in the mainstream. So sometime in the future, before you pick up your pen after listening to one of my commentaries to demand I be taken off the air or certainly before reconsidering your support for Montana Public Radio, I’d ask that you come back to this initial offering and see if maybe we’re actually not that far apart on what we want for our country, even if some of us may be poles apart on how to get there.

So let’s start by talking briefly about our nation’s independence, and what I think our revolution meant. Let me preface this by saying that I believe in American exceptionalism, we are the shining city on the hill. We’re not perfect. In a world of human beings where we all want different things we wouldn’t be able to agree on what “perfect” is anyway. Our exceptionalism comes from the fact that we allow people to define and pursue what makes each of us happy, not what makes all of us happy. We’re free, or should be free, to live our lives as we please so long as we respect others’ right to do the same. By each of us being free to reach our potential and achieve fulfillment, all of us can be better off.

The system our founders set up to allow this individual pursuit of happiness was truly revolutionary in at least two ways. First, it placed the rights of the governed over those of the government. All power originated in the individual, and was devolved to government only by consent. Nobody was above the law and our basic law, the Constitution, was designed to respect and reflect natural rights and human nature.

Which brings us to the second new idea our revolution embodied: that it is better to harness human nature than to suppress it. Rather than focus on strictures and structures that limit the harm we humans can do to each other, our framers decided to unleash the potential that each of us has and reward productive effort and cooperation. Instead of managing a life that was nasty brutish and short, freedom produced lives full of meaning by unleashing our creativity and channeling our ambition. Each of our successes became all of our successes because we were left free to define and pursue happiness in any way that respected others’ right to do the same.

So what does all that mean today? Obviously our world is far different than that of the founding fathers. Their system didn’t foresee mega corporations and their allegiance to short term profit, or the microchip and its ability to increase human understanding through massive computation, or the demands that growing populations can place on the environment. Does that mean we should throw out their ideas and start over? Or should we be “progressive” and adopt whatever methodologies or philosophies that seem to work best as things change? I obviously don’t think so. While we certainly must adapt to new circumstances in a very complicated world, the principles that made this country exceptional and luminescent in the 18th century are what can keep it exceptional and luminescent in the 21st. The truths that were self-evident in 1776 are self-evident today: that all of us are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

What’s best for all of us is the ability to pursue what’s best for each of us; to achieve happiness and fulfillment in our own lives and to improve others’ lives as a result. I am no better or worse off because somebody else is rich, but many people are rich because they made my and many others’ lives better. That’s fair because it rewards effort, and beneficial to society because of the good that is distributed.

And that’s what I think the founders had in mind: a society where each of us can expect to enjoy the fruits of our labor, to be held responsible for the consequences of our actions, and to have a government that works for us rather than rules over us. If only it were so easy. Our immediate future will require hard questions, painful tradeoffs, and a thorough examination of who we are as a country. We’ll discuss some issues surrounding the intersections of those tradeoffs with policy options during our visits in the coming months. I’m looking forward to it and appreciate the opportunity.

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