Politics & Policy

What the 2012 Election Means

It will decide whether our government is limited or all-encompassing.

Ultimately, the 2012 presidential election is not about Barack Obama or Mitt Romney; it’s not about Republicans or Democrats. It is fundamentally about the nature of American government. Is the United States a republic of limited powers or is it something else?

The American Founders created a government based on the idea that the only purpose of government is to protect the equal natural rights of individual citizens. These rights inhere in individuals, not groups, and are antecedent to the creation of government. They are the rights invoked by the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — not happiness itself, but the pursuit of happiness.

Before the American founding, all regimes were based on the principle of interest — the interest of the stronger. That principle was articulated by the Greek historian Thucydides: “Questions of justice arise only between equals. As for the rest, the strong do what they will. The weak suffer what they must.”

The United States was founded on different principles — justice and equality. No longer would government be based on the idea that some men were born “with saddles on their backs” to be ridden by others born “booted and spurred.” In other words, no one has the right to rule over another without the latter’s consent. This is the true meaning of equality.

Of the two candidates in 2012, Mitt Romney more fully embraces the principles of the American Founders. In contrast, Barack Obama has shown himself to be the legitimate heir of Woodrow Wilson and the progressives, who called the Founders’ principles into question.

In the 1912 presidential campaign, Woodrow Wilson explicitly sought to replace the Founders’ emphasis on individual rights and the separation of powers as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution with an evolving, “living Constitution” of unlimited powers. This living Constitution was necessary because the principles embodied by both the Declaration of Independence and the old Constitution had become outmoded. Wilson’s “new political science” saw society as a living organism; human nature was not fixed but evolving. An evolving human nature removed the rationale for such anachronisms as the separation of powers as a means of protecting other anachronisms such as individual rights. The constitution for such an evolving human nature would be Darwinian in character, evolving in response to changing circumstances.

In order to deal with new political and economic conditions, Wilson called for a government of unlimited powers unfettered by the old constraints required by an unchanging human nature. The 1776 Declaration of Independence would give way to a “new declaration of independence” that would enable 20th-century Americans to contend with special interests, political machines, and big business.

But in fact Wilson’s new declaration of independence was a declaration of dependency. It established the basis for a phenomenon foreseen eight decades earlier by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. He warned that democracy is susceptible to a certain form of tyranny: the rule of a “benevolent” government, catering to the public’s needs and whims in exchange for their freedom, which creates a servile people dependent on the largesse of government, happily acquiescing in the loss of liberty as long as the government fulfills their material desires. He called this tendency “soft despotism.”

As Tocqueville predicted, the result of Wilson’s progressive rejection of the Declaration and Constitution has been a soft despotism of scientific experts and administrative bureaucrats, gradually undermining self-government and replacing it with dependency. Nothing epitomizes soft despotism more than “Julia,” the cartoon figure made famous earlier this year to demonstrate what a woman owes to the benevolent policies of the Obama administration.

Soft despotism leads to acceptance of the idea that the central job of the government is not to protect individual rights but to adjudicate the distribution of resources among competing claimants. Such soft despotism reinforces the view that the United States is not a community of individuals, but merely a collection of groups whose demands must be met. But since government produces nothing on its own, certain favored groups prosper at the expense of others. The heirs of Woodrow Wilson may invoke the language of rights, but what they really mean by the term is privileges or claims to resources that are granted by government. They certainly don’t mean by rights what the Founders meant when they used the term.

The United States stands at a crossroads in 2012. Will we choose the path to freedom and prosperity represented by a limited government the purpose of which is to protect the natural rights of its citizens? Or will we succumb to Tocqueville’s “soft despotism” and the servility it entails? On November 6, we will, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude.”

Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor at the Naval War College and editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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