The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Socialism vs. Liberty

The key determinant in the question of Socialism vs. Liberty is that Liberty must always and forever prevail. This fundamental fact is derived from the philosophical foundation laid down by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, which itself derives from the very nature of man and is confirmed in the quotation that is the lead to this whole series of essays:

Whatever else we may conclude, this is the one unalterable guidepost that cannot be moved without undermining the whole purpose of government and, indeed, of human life itself.

Therefore, when we consider Socialism in its many aspects, this is the issue that must remain uppermost. Socialism is a very broad topic, and to condemn every aspect of it on the basis of some ideological hatred would be irrational and absurd. Even Karl Marx had some observations about modern industrial society that we should at least take into consideration. If there are any insights that we might gain from a study of socialism that would aid us in promoting the prosperity and happiness of our fellow citizens, surely we should thoughtfully consider those insights.

But overriding all such considerations and all such investigations is the principle of our inherent and inalienable rights. These we cannot relinquish. If there is anything in socialist thinking that would reinforce those rights, we will pay attention. But if there is anything that would detract from or undermine those rights, we will reply with a resounding "No!"

Ever since the Declaration of Independence proclaimed our inalienable rights, American society has undergone great changes. This is inevitable, as Jefferson pointed out:

Proponents offer Socialism itself as an advanced stage of civilization, as an improvement over "the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." But would the change that socialism offers in fact be an improvement of the human condition? Does it facilitate the natural development of civilization? Is it inevitable that a free society move along the Socialist path?

Oppressors would keep everything as it is in order to maintain themselves with the powers to which they have grown accustomed. They resist change and wish to suppress any experiments in government that might alter the status quo or undermine their prerogatives. But in a free nation, we are not afraid to experiment with government in order to discover those things that suit us and those that do not. We cannot turn away from change, and we must not cling to established ways just because they have been long with us.

    "Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also and keep pace with the times." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Kercheval, 1816.

This is the secret of a dynamic society. As knowledge advances, institutions adapt and change also. Some of this change may seem chaotic, because all advancement includes a mixture of failure and success. But common sense dictates that we cut our losses on the failures and hold on to the successes; or as Jefferson put it:

    "The precept is wise which directs us to try all things and hold fast that which is good." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Drayton, 1788.

But in the process of this experimentation, we cannot, we must not deviate from our fundamental principles.

    "Lay down true principles and adhere to them inflexibly." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Kercheval, 1816.

In the face of change, true principles -- the inherent and inalienable rights of man -- do not change, must not change.

We have already conducted many experiments in this country. We tried Prohibition, and decided that was a mistake. Our experiment with socialism in the form of a system of public welfare has only proved that the socialist principle of "to each according to his need" creates dependency and does not solve any problems. As a result, we are now in the process of changing that system. But a failed experiment is no reason for making drastic changes in the form of government to prevent the occurrence of such mistakes. If anything, failure and its correction only proves that our system works! Trial and error is the way a free, dynamic society functions: the society tries something, and when people discover the experiment doesn't work, they revise the program or terminate it. As long as our republican principles remain intact, as long as the people exercise control over government, there is no great danger to society. An occasional error only proves that the system is working and we are changing and adapting government as we go along, just as the Founding Fathers intended we should do. Congress would be remiss were it to refrain from such experimentation out of a misplaced reverence for the institutions as established by the Founding Fathers. Only despotic force has an interest in bringing such experiments to a halt.

    "I have such reliance on the good sense of the body of the people and the honesty of their leaders that I am not afraid of their letting things go wrong to any length in any cause." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Dumas, 1788.

Most often, on closer examination we find that the enemies of change in fact have a secret agenda. When private interests are promoted by a specific interpretation of the "Founding Father's intentions," those interests cling to the past as though they were the defenders of the true faith.

    "Those who [advocate] reformation of institutions pari passu with the progress of science [maintain] that no definite limits [can] be assigned to that progress. The enemies of reform, on the other hand, [deny] improvement and [advocate] steady adherence to the principles, practices and institutions of our fathers, which they [represent] as the consummation of wisdom and acme of excellence, beyond which the human mind could never advance." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Adams, 1813.

But our Founding Fathers had no intentions that established institutional forms appropriate for the colonial experience should remain unrevised forever.

    "I willingly acquiesce in the institutions of my country, perfect or imperfect; and think it a duty to leave their modifications to those who are to live under them, and are to participate of the good or evil they may produce. The present generation has the same right of self-government which the past one has exercised for itself." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Pleasants, 1824.

In fact, Jefferson expected future generations to be every bit the equal of the Founders.

    "Our children will be as wise as we are and will establish in the fulness of time those things not yet ripe for establishment." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Tyler, 1810.

He thought it inconceivable that a later generation would knowingly throw away the heritage of freedom.

    "The generation which is going off the stage has deserved well of mankind for the struggles it has made and for having arrested that course of despotism which had overwhelmed the world for thousands and thousands of years. If there seems to be danger that the ground they have gained will be lost again, that danger comes from the [upcoming] generation. But that the enthusiasm which characterizes youth should lift its parricide hands against freedom and science would be such a monstrous phenomenon as I cannot place among possible things in this age and this country." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Mumford, 1799.

There will be experiments, and some of them will turn out to be mistakes. But we should not despair. Suppression is not the answer, but rather education.

    "We shall have our follies without doubt. Some one or more of them will always be afloat. But ours will be the follies of enthusiasm, not of bigotry. Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both. We are destined to be a barrier against the return of ignorance and barbarism." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Adams, 1816.

To suppress change, even "wrong" changes, in the name of preserving freedom is to destroy freedom. The republican institutions of this country, if maintained, are fully capable of correcting all error because those institutions allow the people themselves to change their mind and to correct their mistakes and those of their predecessors.

    "Whenever our affairs go obviously wrong, the good sense of the people will interpose and set them to rights." --Thomas Jefferson to D. Humphreys, 1789.

The failed experiment of Prohibition only affirmed that this is indeed a great nation under the sovereign supervision of its own people, fully capable of making experiments and then of rejecting the experiment if the outcome turns out ill.

    Socialism & Change

Given that change is inevitable and necessary, that some experiments with change will turn out well and some will not, but given also the immutability of our inherent and inalienable rights, there is one question that arises above all others with regard to any changes in governmental policy, including any proposed changes derived from socialist theory: Is this a kind of change that leaves those rights intact? Does it place those rights above all other theories or ideals? Does it, in fact, reinforce and reaffirm those rights, or does it undermine them? Do the people of this nation retain the freedom to experiment with change, to keep what is good and discard what is bad?

Advocates maintain that the ideals of Socialism are social justice, greater equality, and security. But there is no mention of inalienable rights. The three ideals, stated plainly, seem innocent enough. In fact, justice, equality and security are mentioned or implied in the Declaration of Independence, which also adds, however, the pursuit of happiness. "All men are created equal" defines equality. "Certain inalienable rights" suggests justice. The people's right to establish government that will "effect their safety and happiness" affirms their right to security.

The omission of the pursuit of happiness from the list of socialist ideals is significant, because Socialism removes that as an individual's responsibility and makes it the task of the state. Socialism is not founded on a philosophy of natural rights, but on a theory of social betterment. It is not based on an understanding of the natural condition of man and his inherent nature, but on a utopian concept which defines an ideal good. It does not leave to the individual the determination of what constitutes the pursuit of happiness, but decides and dictates this to all members of society. This is a fundamental difference, based on the abstract idealism of socialist theory, as opposed to the realistic view of existence posed by natural rights. (It is treated more fully under the essay on Natural Rights.) While recognizing that all men are created equal in their entitlement to political rights, natural rights also grants to men the freedom to discover their own potential and to make of their life what they will. Natural rights do not attempt to compensate a person for his natural shortcomings, nor diminish the rewards to a person for his natural abilities. Each person is accepted "as God created them."

    "Our wish... is that... equality of rights [be] maintained, and that state of property, equal or unequal, which results to every man from his own industry or that of his fathers." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Inaugural Address, 1805.

Equal rights necessitate unequal outcomes, because not every person will utilize the opportunity afforded by equal rights in the same way. Not every man is born into the same family and community circumstances. These circumstances are the result of natural happenstance, and become a national concern only when they result from the violation of natural rights. We are resting the organization of our society on nature, not on the artificial and abstract construction of the imagination of man. If nature makes one man stronger than another, then equal rights will mean that the stronger cannot enslave the weaker, but he can nevertheless reap the profit of whatever his strength enables him to gain.

Why, one might ask, does not Natural Rights mean that the naturally stronger has the right to enslave the naturally weaker? It is because we are all humans, and in forming a society, we look to the highest reaches to which human nature may aspire. The strong exploiting the weak provides that neither for the weak or the strong. We form a society to mutually protect our humanness from the exploitation of the strong. If exploitation were permitted, there would be no fulfillment of human potential. Many do not believe that, of course; they believe that they are entitled to dominate others if possible. They are social predators. We are grateful that our Founding Fathers were sufficiently developed as human beings themselves to transcend that and create a nation founded on the principle that "All men are created equal." Equal rights, therefore, are a recognition of the dignity which is the birthright of every human being regardless of his strength or abilities.

Socialism, in pursuing what it postulates as social justice, greater equality and security, does so by abolishing private enterprise and private ownership as the means of production. Socialism creates a centrally planned economy. Much has been written to prove that socialism enervates initiative, destroys creativity and is therefore highly inefficient. We will not add to that here, except to say that in spite of overwhelming evidence, Socialism maintains supporters in some quarters. Perhaps supporters of Socialism see it as a way of redistributing wealth and gaining material advantage that one would be incapable of gaining on one's own. Apparently, there are many kinds of governmental programs that are designated as "socialistic," and are included in a blanket condemnation of everything related to socialism. The fundamental reasons for accepting or condemning specific social programs of government is beyond the scope of this essay and will be considered in a later one.

    Why condemn Socialism?

The criteria to be used in condemning social programs is whether or not those programs violate the inalienable rights of man. The criteria is not whether social programs "work" or not. Such a conclusion is always a matter of opinion, and the enemies will always say it does not work, and the supporters will always say it does or it only needs fixing. The real criteria for judging government's social programs will always be their effect on human liberty. Does the program enable each and every citizen through their own actions and initiatives to:

  • realize their own potential?
  • pursue their happiness equally with every other person?
  • pursue whatever they consider excellence?
  • exploit the freest range of human creativity?

SOCIALISM DOES NOT FULFILL THESE GOALS! Central planning means that endeavors that were the province of the individual are taken over by a centrally administered bureaucracy. The affairs of an enormously complex society are put in the hands of a few bureaucrats, rather than being left to the creative achievements of millions of entrepreneurs, each one seeking excellence in a naturally competitive environment. The most vital part of an ordinary person's life -- his work, his creation of the materials for living -- is taken over by a faceless committee. His capacity to achieve is not limited only by his own abilities, but by centrally administered rules. Creativity under socialism depends not on human initiative, but must be filtered through a central authority. Only when the individual has complete sovereignty over his own life can he completely exploit his creative potential. Socialism means the bureaucratic creativity (an oxymoron if there ever was one) of the few; liberty means the unrestricted creativity of millions of individuals. The fundamental rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, so necessary for reaching human potential, find their realization only in a state of freedom and equality.

    "The principles on which we engaged, of which the charter of our independence is the record, were sanctioned by the laws of our being, and we but obeyed them in pursuing undeviatingly the course they called for. It issued finally in that inestimable state of freedom which alone can ensure to man the enjoyment of his equal rights." --Thomas Jefferson to Georgetown Republicans, 1809.

A free society is founded on the freedom inherent in human nature, not on that granted to it by a central governing authority. Such a governing authority by its very nature, by its very existence is inimical to human freedom.

    "A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774.

The purpose of government is not to define man, to postulate abstractly what his life should be, and then dictate those intellectually derived conclusions to him. As intelligent as man is, he is not clever enough to discern the meaning of human existence and dictate that meaning to others. The purpose of government is to create a society in which each individual has the freedom to discover those things for himself, and reap the fruits of his discovery. Government's purpose is to protect the people as each one exercises his sovereign right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    "The laws are consequently so formed and administered as to bear with equal weight and favor on all, restraining no man in the pursuits of honest industry and securing to every one the property which that acquires." --Thomas Jefferson: 6th Annual Message, 1806.

The advancement of humankind comes about, not from the restrictive manipulations of a central bureaucracy, but from that liberty which is enjoyed by each individual citizen.

    "Liberty... is the great parent of science and of virtue; and a nation will be great in both always in proportion as it is free." --Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Willard, 1789.

Bureaucratic control results in the oppressed society so typically created by those who fear the people and their capacity to do for themselves what is right and good. If creativity is limited and filtered through a bureaucratic net, it is restricted by the narrow minds and paltry vision of bureaucratic officials. This is hardly the way to a better society.

    "Where thought is free in its range, we need never fear to hazard what is good in itself." --Thomas Jefferson to Olgilvie, 1811.

Only in a state of liberty is reason free to work its way through to technological solutions. Restrictions on freedom of inquiry and on those activities where inquiry may lead only results in corruption as established error remains unchallenged.

    "Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error... They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only... If [free enquiry] be restrained now, the present corruptions will be protected, and new ones encouraged." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Va., 1782.

The best course for government is to trust its people with freedom and to allow them to regulate their own affairs. This is the best means to a dynamic and creative society, and offers the best opportunity for the citizens of that society to realize their own potential.

    "The policy of the American government is to leave their citizens free, neither restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits." --Thomas Jefferson to M. L'Hommande, 1787.

The role of government, therefore, is to assure citizens their equal rights and to allow them to pursue their productive activities unhampered by government intervention. Social change, necessary and inevitable in a free society, comes about as a result of the creative energy of a whole nation of people, not of a small directorate. Socialism is not conducive to naturally occurring change; it denies essential liberties and restricts the creative energy of the people, producing its changes through calculated measures that destroy individual initiative and creativity.

    "What more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow citizens--a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801.


Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

The Jeffersonian Perspective: Top of This Page | Table of Contents | Front Page
Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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