Celebrating the libertarian ideas in the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence

April 13 marks the 275th birthday of Thomas Jefferson. It can be difficult to grapple with Jefferson’s full legacy, because although he penned some of the most inspiring rhetoric about liberty and self-ownership, he also held human beings in bondage until his dying day. On slavery, Jefferson talked the talk of emancipation but failed to walk the walk. He died a slaveholder and was the father of children borne by his slave Sally Hemings. Libertarians unequivocally condemn the institution of slavery, no matter the historical context.

Still, although Jefferson failed to live by his own ideals, we can be inspired by what he wrote about human freedom. The Declaration of Independence, America’s founding document, is profoundly libertarian. Jefferson, the principal author, collaborated with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Sherman, and Robert Livingston to declare liberation of the American colonies from authoritarian rule by Great Britain.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” the preamble stated, with sentiments that ring profoundly true to this day. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it …”

Democrats and Republicans both use their government power as a method of denying our unalienable rights. They have created 17 intelligence agencies to spy on us and surveil us. They have empowered bureaucrats to use that surveillance information to curtail freedom in other ways, such as putting people on “no-fly” lists, restricting the liberty to travel. They have authorized unaccountable bureaucrats at the federal, state, and local level to micromanage what we can do with our own property, eroding our pursuit of happiness. They have engaged in wasteful spending, taxing away more than 50 percent of our earnings.

One of the many objections to British rule outlined in the Declaration of Independence was the restriction of immigration. It notes that the king had “endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither …” Today, both Republicans and Democrats have succumbed to the shrill cries of fear from nationalists, nativists, and populists who suggest that we should discourage and prevent immigration.

The economic evidence is clear, however, that immigration expands our economy and brings new wealth and innovation. The ratio of workers to retirees has also changed, thanks to demographic changes such as longer life spans and fewer children, which endangers the retirement security of our elderly population. Allowing widespread immigration of working-age people not only boosts the economy in general, it would also help ameliorate the chronic underfunding and bankruptcy of both public and private pensions and retirement funding programs.

The Declaration of Independence also attacked oppressive regulation and taxation, pointing out that the king had “erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.” In the modern era, Democrats and Republicans have written laws that ultimately authorized about 200,000 legally binding rules to be issued since the Federal Register began enumerating them in 1976. It is impossible to read them all, much less be certain of staying in full in compliance with them. The book Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent, by Boston civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate, explains how the United States has created such a deep and tangled regulatory morass that most people commit multiple felony crimes every day without knowing it. This provides pretext for government officials to harass almost anybody they wish.

The Declaration of Independence complained that the king had “kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.” Both Republicans and Democrats have kept standing armies ever since World War II. From Korea to Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan to Syria, to name just a few — and now National Guard troops at the Mexican border — those standing armies have involved us in the disastrous civil wars of other countries, with nary a declaration of war from Congress.

The Declaration accused the king of “cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world …” Trade wars supported by Democrats and Republicans alike are moving rapidly in that direction, protecting the privileged positions of a few U.S. manufacturers at the expense of U.S. consumers and exporters.

Perhaps the most libertarian part of the Declaration of Independence is its insistence that people have no obligation to submit to oppression: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”

To that end, the Libertarian Party plans to run more than 2,000 candidates for federal, state, and local office in 2018 with the purpose of fundamentally altering the government and once again securing “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”