Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Declaration of Independence Was A Mistake

This op-ed was published by the Gazette-Times (Corvallis, Oregon) on June 30, 2004.  I am posting it here because that website may no longer be accessible by non-subscribers.

The Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-Tung once observed that, "There is nothing as practical as a good theory." Unfortunately for China, he didn't have one. Even more unfortunately, Americans don't have one, either. (Just because we correctly disagreed with Mao's perverse principles doesn't mean that ours are correct. It is possible for both sides of a disagreement to be wrong.)

The fundamental error in U.S. political doctrine is our assumption¸ never adequately examined, that nations and "peoples" ought to have a right to independence and "self-determination." Although this principle was best articulated by President Woodrow Wilson during World War I, its roots go clear back to the Declaration of Independence and the subsequent war by which we tore ourselves loose from British rule.

The problem with a claimed right of self-determination is that government isn't like that. Political philosophers have long understood that the essence of government is its power to impose sanctions on people, the power in the inspired language of the Constitution to deprive people of life, liberty or property. Since nobody will consent to a transaction in which they are to be executed, imprisoned, or fined, our basic relationship with government is an involuntary association, not a voluntary one.

St. Thomas Aquinas was pointing out this unpleasant fact about government when he noted that "Taking away justice, then, what is government but a great robber band?" Everybody understands that the relationship between a robber and his victim is an involuntary association. Even Mao Tse-tung, who being merely human could not always manage to be wrong, got something right when he observed that "All political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."

It is perverse to claim a right to voluntarily select the people with whom we are going to be involuntarily associated. Any foreign policy based on such a belief cannot help but confuse and disorient us and our leaders. And it throws us seriously off-balance when we are dealing with terrorists.

It is often said that organizations like the PLO, the ETA (Basque separatists in Spain), the IRA (Catholic separatists in Northern Ireland), the Chechen separatists in Russia, etc., are pursuing legitimate goals with illegitimate means. This is incorrect. These organizations are pursuing illegitimate goals - national independence - with illegitimate means - terrorism.

The people for whom these organizations claim to speak may indeed have legitimate grievances. But if they are being singled out for unjust treatment by the governments they are currently under, the proper remedy is to demand that they be treated equally under the law along with everyone else in their country, not that they be allowed to go their own way.

Americans have seen how well this reformist approach works. Black people in America historically suffered from intolerable injustices, but mainstream black leaders correctly resisted the bad precedent set by the Declaration of Independence and demanded equality before the law rather than separation.

It may take Americans some time to recognize that my argument is a correct one. Understanding this will not be easy for people whose principal political holiday is Independence Day!

Of course, it is too late now to repudiate the Declaration of Independence and submit once again to British rule. But the vigor with which the United States stomped on the attempt by its southern states to secede implicitly admitted that we recognize no right to self-determination when it is directed against our own government. It is high time that we explicitly admit that our revolution was a mistake, and stop condoning efforts to secede from other countries, too.

Paul F. deLespinasse of Corvallis is a retired professor of political science from Adrian College in Michigan. His e-mail address is pdeles@proaxis.com


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