That beautiful little statement in the Declaration of Independence was obviously the expression of an ideal. After all, how many governments at that point had existed to preserve individual rights? Some European monarchs did a better job than others, but the purpose of their governments rarely had much to do with preserving the liberty of their serfs and peasants. You were a subject, maybe a lucky subject with an estate or a benevolent master, but a subject nonetheless.
But even governments that consciously dedicate themselves to this ideal will invariably fall short; that’s the nature of an ideal. Nevertheless, I am what I am is one of our Foundational Principles. It’s also a great device for framing a debate.
I’ve discussed how the left distorts this ideal here. I am what I am can be expressed as I=I, or just as importantly I=U (in terms of sovereignty, I am equal to you). The Anointed believe I>U ( I am greater than you) or I=G (I am a god, not exactly, but close enough). The Benighted believe I<U, or I=A (I am just a victim or beneficiary of circumstance, biology, etc.). That post was on how the left gets the I principle wrong, this post is on some of the ways in which we can use that principle against them.
One of the left’s most effective subtle frames has been that government equals cooperation. When you hear about “big government”, you imagine armies of bureaucrats and jackbooted thugs, they think of wise and caring people making sure we treat each other well. When we hear regulation, we imagine busybodies ensuring that producers spend less time producing and more time dotting i’s and crossing t’s. To us, the government is some SWAT team taking over some dude’s ranch because some squirrel decided to make it into his habitat. To us, it’s a giant boon for the teachers’ unions, to them it’s “working together” to ensure “investment” in “America’s future” through government-funded universal preschool.
But it’s not “teamwork” or “working together”, it’s force. If you don’t want to pay for Sandra Fluke’s contraception, tough. Team Washington says you should have to, so you do. Sometimes force is necessary (i.e. locking up a rapist), but all too often it’s not, and it should NEVER be our knee-jerk instinct to use force to solve problems. Big government is massive amonunts of money being taken from some people and given to others and incomprehensible rules stopping people from doing what they want. We’ve got to take the fantasy government is working together smiles all around frame away from them, because it’s flat-out NOT TRUE.
I understand that we live in an ostensible democracy, but we’re supposed to live in a constitutional republic. You have been endowed with rights, and you have those rights whether you live in North Korea and Kim Jong Eww despises them or you live in Belgium and every single one of your neighbors votes to take them away from you. If your I is being violated through taxation to preserve collective liberty by establishing a police force that’s one thing. If it’s being violated to redistribute your stuff, to take the fruits of your labor and give them to somebody else who “deserves” them more, it’s quite another. In short, the default should be away from force, not Obama’s idea that just about every challenge “Julia” might encounter throughout her life can be solved by making people do stuff for her.
There are zillions of caveats to this, as there are with all grand principles. Many from across the political spectrum emphasize roads and other infrastructure. Some on the right believe government should also enforce (or at least encourage) moral rectitude. The left often believes that “preserving rights” refers to “positive rights” like healthcare or a job. I will deal with the first two groups in detail in future posts (for they relate to a proper balance between the three Foundational Principles). To the third group, I simply say that if somebody else has to do it for you, you don’t have a right to it.*
I once had a conversation with a leftie in which I asked her, “Why should I have to help the poor?”
She replied with a long list of reasons: other people haven’t been as lucky as me, “we’re all in this together”, if a neighborhood has less poverty it increases property values, it’s good to care for my fellow man, Jesus says I should, etc.
I replied, “Those are all great reasons for why I should help the poor, but you didn’t answer my question. Why should I have to help the poor?”
Rebecca wasn’t able to answer me, but others have. Historical injustice. That’s what the government says I should do. It’s the right thing to do, therefore I should have to.
(And these are the folks accuse the religious right of making everybody else fall in line with their morality. Sometimes they’re right, but that’s no excuse.)
However, whenever you introduce the I frame, your opponent is at a disadvantage. Whatever reasons they might give, and however well they might express them, they have to make the case that we matters more than I. The more you maintain your frame, the more they have to insist that because of how and where you were born that you owe other people you’ve never met whether you like it or not. You’re in debt to others at birth because of things that happened over which you have no control. You were either born into a we that has to give back or a we that should be given to.
A focus on the individual overtly challenges the implied we that’s central to collectivist thought. How does it benefit me that 95% of CEO’s are WHAM’s like I am? How can you say my rights aren’t being violated when you’re forcing me to subsidize lifestyles I find morally abhorrent? What role did you play in slavery? So you think you benefitted from it. Fine. Did Billy Joe living in a that trailer park? Did my grandfather who came over here from Poland when he was nine? If you think you owe something to the descendants of slaves, then give them something, but don’t make me.
A refutation they will often offer is that by opposing making people do the right thing, you support doing the wrong thing. There are many ways in which they will do this (and some of our friends on the religious right will do it, too), and it’s impossible to cover each possible counter in a single post. However, the pattern to all of them will be a focus on I, to draw the distinction between virtue and legal obligation. When they present something as a moral obligation, if you agree, say so. However, be sure to consistently and clearly draw the line between should and should have to.
As your conversation focuses more on the distinction between the voluntary I and the involuntary we, you can highlight how difficult determining we can actually be. Is we America vis-a-vis Africa? Does Oprah belong to the oppressed we? Is she at a greater disadvantage that a poor white kid with an alcoholic father? Or how about a rich white kid whose dad was a cokehead? The illegitimate son of a famous athlete who gave mom tons of cash but never spent so much as an afternoon with the kid? Who gets to make these decisions? Do we really want to give anybody that much power?
This isn’t all of conservatism; it’s only one aspect of one of the three Principles (social and law enforcement/military cons, I’ll be addressing you soon). However, it can be incredibly usefule to keep lefties from hiding behind their benevolent, yet entirely false view that government is a giant game of Ring-Around-the-Rosy.
If you have objections or questions, leave a comment or send an email. I barely touched on the responses the left will offer to counter this, and there are many (as well as some from the religious right). Frames are only starting points. How to finish requires a lot more detail.
In the meantime, understand that I’m not necessarily saying that selfishness is a virture. I am saying that forcing other people into your utopian schemes is not.
*This applies to able-bodied adults. If you’re literally unable to sustain yourself because you’re three years old or have no limbs, a case can be made for state and local governments to provide for you.