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On this 240th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence, our beloved country is, alas, in trouble and badly in need of reform. At the heart of our woes is what has so often been at the heart of our woes whenever we have had woes, going all the way back to the original sin of slavery—infidelity to our Nation’s founding principles. Those principles include our formal constitutional commitments as well as the moral and cultural norms, practices, and understandings that those commitments presuppose for their intelligibility and force and without which they cannot long endure. The promise of America remains great, but in many crucial areas we have gone astray. If America is to fulfill her promise, things must be turned around. It will not be easy, nor can it be accomplished without sacrifice; but it can be done.
We must renew our national commitment to limited government and the rule of law. This will include the restoration of the constitutional separation of powers and the recovery of the principle of federalism. More broadly, we must demand respect for the principle of subsidiarity, not only for the sake of individual liberty (though that is certainly very important), but also for the sake of the flourishing of vitally important institutions of civil society. Those institutions begin with the family and religious and other private associations that: (a) assist the family in forming decent and honorable citizens—people who are fitted out morally for the burdens and responsibilities of freedom; and (b) play indispensable roles in the areas of health, education, and welfare, including the provision of social services and assistance to those in need.
We must also restore to its rightful place the democratic element of our republican system, by reversing the outrageous usurpations of legislative authority regularly and indeed routinely committed by the executive and judicial departments. Such reform will, substantively, enable us to make critically needed gains in the direction of restoring in law and culture even more fundamental principles, beginning with the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions; marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife; and respect for religious freedom and the rights of conscience; along with other basic civil liberties. Social liberalism is riding high, especially after eight years of extremely aggressive promotion by a president who is willing to stretch and even breach the constitutional limits of executive power at every turn, in order to institutionalize his socially liberal values and weave them into the fabric of our law and public institutions (including the military). But what he and the courts have done can be undone. It is a matter of political will—the willingness to “pay any price and bear any burden” to accomplish what is needed in the cause of moral-cultural renewal.
Economic reform must also be given its due in an overall agenda of reform. Corporate welfare and crony capitalism (of the sort that, for example, creates regulatory barriers preventing upstarts from competing with large established firms that can more easily absorb compliance costs) are blights on the honor of our Nation. Moreover, there is a problem of plutocracy, which the left derides while frequently taking advantage of, and the right denies or ignores, supposing that the cultural and political power of big business is just the free market doing its thing. The Trump and Sanders phenomena are driven, to a considerable extent, by legitimate economic grievances. Economic inequality is not in itself unjust, and any truly effective effort to eliminate it would give us tyranny in no time flat. But justice does require that we maintain fair terms of competition and cultivate conditions for large-scale upward social mobility. A sound system will be one in which upstart firms can compete fairly with the big dogs, and hard work, initiative, and the willingness to take investment risks are rewarded.
In the area of national security, where many of our most urgent and frightening challenges lie, a renewed sense of American exceptionalism—one that would be massively advanced by moral reform and re-dedication to our constitutional principles—would serve us well. American exceptionalism is often misunderstood. It is not a claim that we, as Americans, are superior people. Rather, it is a claim that the principles of our founding are unique and valuable principles. It is an affirmation that the American people are not bound together as a nation by blood or soil but rather by a shared commitment to a moral-political creed: “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, and among these are life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
This creed is what has rallied Americans in the past to the defense of our country. It can once again strengthen us to stand up to the evildoers who threaten us, and it can inspire us to make the sacrifices that—make no mistake—will have to be made if we are to defeat them. The evildoers have confidence that they will prevail over us, despite our overwhelming military power, because they believe in something and we believe in nothing; because they are spiritually and morally rigorous and we are soft and self-indulgent; because they are willing to fight and die and we are not. Our survival against them depends entirely on whether these beliefs about us are true or false. Whether they are true or false is up to us. A central goal of any reform movement worthy of the name will be to make it the case that these beliefs about us are false. If they are true, then we are doomed, and doomed with us is the noble experiment in morally ordered liberty bequeathed to us by the founders of the American republic on this day 240 years ago.
Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University.