Ayn Rand on America’s Founding Documents
Compilation by Andy Joppa
In my view, Ayn Rand remains the best source for understanding America…its origins, it’s strengths and its requirements. Below is a compilation of Rand’s thoughts on this country and its founding documents. I hope I’ve pieced it together into a cohesive and coherent flow of information. I believe revisiting her ideas…ideas that have influenced and inspired many millions…will be useful as we fight our current battles for national survival. Consider what she offered, over fifty years ago, in terms of America 2021…and beyond.
I will not change any of the tense of her verbs or her frames of reference.
In mankind’s history, the understanding of the government’s proper function is a very recent achievement: it is only two hundred years old and it dates from the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution. Not only did they identify the nature and the needs of a free society, but they devised the means to translate it into practice. A free society—like any other human product—cannot be achieved by random means, by mere wishing or by the leaders’ “good intentions.”
A complex legal system, based on objectively valid principles, is required to make a society free and to keep it free—a system that does not depend on the motives, the moral character or the intentions of any given official, a system that leaves no opportunity, no legal loophole for the development of tyranny.
The American system of checks and balances was just such an achievement. And although certain contradictions in the Constitution did leave a loophole for the growth of statism, the incomparable achievement was the concept of a constitution as a means of limiting and restricting the power of the government.
Today, when a concerted effort is made to obliterate this point, it cannot be repeated too often that the Constitution is a limitation on the government, not on private individuals—that it does not prescribe the conduct of private individuals, only the conduct of the government—that it is not a charter for government power, but a charter of the citizens’ protection against the government.
Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational.To violate man’s rights means to compel him to act against his own judgment, or to expropriate his values. Basically, there is only one way to do it: by the use of physical force.
There are two potential violators of man’s rights: the criminals and the government. The great achievement of the United States was to draw a distinction between these two—by forbidding to the second the legalized version of the activities of the first.
The Declaration of Independence laid down the principle that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” This provided the only valid justification of a government and defined its only proper purpose: to protect man’s rights by protecting him from physical violence. Thus, the government’s function was changed from the role of ruler to the role of servant. The government was set to protect man from criminals—and the Constitution was written to protect man from the government. The Bill of Rights was not directed against private citizens, but against the government—as an explicit declaration that individual rights supersede any public or social power.
The result was the pattern of a civilized society which—for the brief span of some hundred and fifty years—America came close to achieving. A civilized society is one in which physical force is banned from human relationships—in which the government, acting as a policeman, may use force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. This was the essential meaning and intent of America’s political philosophy, implicit in the principle of individual rights. But it was not formulated explicitly, nor fully accepted nor consistently practiced. America’s inner contradiction was the altruist-collectivist ethics. Altruism is incompatible with freedom, with capitalism and with individual rights. One cannot combine the pursuit of happiness with the moral status of a sacrificial animal. It was the concept of individual rights that had given birth to a free society. It was with the destruction of individual rights that the destruction of freedom had to begin.
Don’t pretend that Americanism and the Free Enterprise System are two things. They are inseparable, like body and soul. The basic principle of inalienable individual rights, which is Americanism, can be translated into practical reality only in the form of the economic system of Free Enterprise. That was the system established by the American Constitution, the system which made America the best and greatest country on earth. You may preach any other form of economics if you wish. But if you do so, don’t pretend that you are preaching Americanism.
Don’t pretend that you are upholding the Free Enterprise System in some vague, general, undefined way, while preaching the specific ideas that oppose and destroy it. Don’t attack individual rights, individual freedom, private action, private initiative, and private property. These things are essential parts of the Free Enterprise System, without which it cannot exist. Don’t preach the superiority of public ownership as such over private ownership. Don’t preach or imply that all publicly owned projects are noble, humanitarian undertakings by grace of the mere fact that they are publicly owned—while preaching, at the same time, that private property or the defense of private property rights is the expression of some sort of vicious greed, of anti-social selfishness or evil.
In a proper society, the citizens have rights, but the government does not. The government acts by permission, as expressed in a written constitution that limits public officials to defined functions and procedures. The first and best example of this approach was the original American system, with its brilliantly ingenious mechanism of checks and balances. There are some contradictions in the Constitution; in essence, however, its purpose was to protect the individual from two potential tyrants: the government and the mob. The system was designed to thwart both the power lust of any aspiring dictator and any momentary, corrupt passion on the part of the general public.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are the greatest achievements in political history, and they dazzled the world for well over a century, until they were scuttled by an alien ideology. No political system, whatever its built-in safeguards, can survive the atrophy in the mind of the intellectuals of its basic philosophy.
The American system, as has often been stated by conservatives, was not a democracy, whether representative or direct, but a republic. (I use these terms as the Founding Fathers did.) “Democracy” means a system of unlimited majority rule; “unlimited” means unrestricted by individual rights. Such an approach is not a form of freedom, but of collectivism. A “republic,” by contrast, is a system restricted to the protection of rights. In a republic, majority rule applies only to some details, like the selection of certain personnel.
Rights, however, remain an absolute; i.e., the principles governing the government are not subject to vote. The “consent of the governed” is the source of a government’s power since government is an agent of its citizens. But this does not mean that the citizens can delegate powers they do not possess. It does not mean that anything to which the governed consent is thereby proper or a proper function of government—which would be pure subjectivism and collectivism. In a republic, the governed may not rightfully strike down an innocent fellow-citizen, not in any form, even if the nation consents to it without a dissenting voice.
The source of a government’s power is not arbitrary consent, but rational consent, based on an objective principle. The principle is the rights of man. Man, America’s Founding Fathers said in essence, is the rational animal. Therefore, the individual, not the state, is sovereign; man must be left free to think, and to act accordingly. Unlike Plato, whose political ideas followed from his basic premises, Aristotle’s political ideas were mixed; they were a blend of individualistic and Platonic elements (the concept of “rights” had not yet been formulated). In the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that implements it, we see at last the full expression, in political terms, of the Aristotelian fundamentals.
Some humanitarians demand a collectivist state because of their pity for the incompetent or Passive Man. For his sake they wish to harness the Active. But the Active Man cannot function in harness. And once he is destroyed, the destruction of the Passive Man follows automatically. So, if pity is the humanitarians’ first consideration, then in the name of pity, if nothing else, they should leave the Active Man free to function, in order to help the Passive. There is no other way to help him. The Active, however, are exterminated in a collectivist society.
The history of mankind is the history of the struggle between the Active Man and the Passive, between the individual and the collective. The countries which have produced the happiest men, the highest standards of living and the greatest cultural advances have been the countries where the power of the collective—of the government, of the state—was limited and the individual was given freedom of independent action. The rise of the United States to a degree of achievement unequaled in history—was by grace of the individual freedom and independence which our Constitution gave each citizen against the collective.
While men are still pondering upon the causes of the rise and fall of civilizations, every page of history cries to us that there is but one source of progress: Individual Man in independent action. Collectivism is the ancient principle of savagery. A savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.