Government for grownups
July 3, 2018
The King is the great father, and all in his realm are mere children. Or the elites, the ruling class, the plantation owner—all have used the same analogy of ruling as a parent over children. The idea of a republic—especially of the new American republic, whose birthday we celebrate today—was a rejection of the claim that governing authorities should rule the rest of us as if we were mere children.
The American Founders voted for independence on July 2, 1776. What we celebrate on the Fourth of July is the Declaration of Independence that contains the ideas that justified so much sacrifice and bloodshed and that the Constitution was later written to uphold.
When the Declaration says people are “created equal,” it does not mean people are all the same. It means every person has the same rights as every other person. Thomas Jefferson would later explain the idea by contrasting people and horses. Any sane person knows which one rides the other. There is no such clear delineation among human beings. Jefferson did not mention the one exception, which is that young children need to be governed by adults. That is, of course, why kings and elites use the metaphor of a family to justify their power over others.
In a republic, resting on the ideas set forth in the Declaration, every adult is an adult. No elected leader or other government official has any legitimate power to treat his or her fellow citizens as if they were children. Citizens may make bad decisions, or unexpected ones, but being an adult means making your own choices and living with the consequences. So long as my choices don’t directly harm my neighbor or threaten my community, they are my choices to make.
Political leaders and government officials turn citizens into children when they claim the power to override people’s choices or to step in and prevent the consequences of those choices. There are, of course, some citizens who sometimes prefer to be treated that way and to see their politicians as parents or even secular saviors. And the more government operates that way, the more citizens lose the self-confidence to act as adults. This is the downward spiral of government becoming more powerful and people becoming more dependent and demanding even more powerful government.
As we celebrate the Declaration of Independence, it is a great day to remind ourselves that there is a better way. Adults who act like children cannot form successful families or a functioning society. Politicians who see themselves as parents of the public will always wind up grasping and imperious.
The irony is that in our democratic system, grasping government officials rely on citizens choosing to see themselves, or at least many of their fellow citizens, as children in order to expand government control. Freedom, on the other hand, relies on us choosing to see ourselves and our fellow citizens as adults and thus demanding the form of government called for on July 4, 1776—government for grownups.