Every old ideological conflict eventually becomes new again. So it is with today’s battle between the forces of socialism, called “fairness” by its advocates, and the forces of capitalism, labeled “liberty” by its supporters. What we are witnessing is an ancient struggle between those who believe in the rights of the individual and those who believe in a sort of “general will.” Those of conservative bent ardently hope for a second American Revolution; those of the left wish desperately for a second French Revolution.
This is not mere rhetoric. Look at the history of the first American Revolution, and you will see the fundamental principles that animate Rush Limbaugh; look at the history of the first French Revolution, and you will see the spirit that animates President Barack Obama.
John Adams’ Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, ratified in 1780, provides the basic framework for American governing philosophy: “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.” The purpose of the government is to secure these rights.
By contrast, France’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man is an ode to the collective. “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation,” it states. “Law is the expression of the general will.” The purpose of the government is to make laws benefiting society, not to restrict itself from encroachment upon the rights of the individual.
This philosophical distinction has dramatically different ramifications. The American Revolution was followed by peaceful governance because it granted power -- and responsibility -- to the individual. It did not excoriate the upper class for its wealth, nor the poorer class for its plight; wealth and poverty were not seen as the result of societal shortcomings. Dramatic social leveling would have been superfluous, in this view.