Where we Got Our Ideas for Government and Economy
The basic philosophies beneath the American system of government and economics come in great measure from the thinking popular in the century of the founding of our nation. It’s called the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment, for good reason. How do we know what is true? For centuries we knew the truths because they were revealed to the religious leaders and shared with the masses, the so-called “Age of Faith” through the Middle Ages. After the rediscovery of Aristotle and the scientific method of inductive reasoning in the 14th century, a “rebirth” or Renaissance occurred in Italy and spread north and west. The resulting “Scientific Revolution” transformed our knowledge of nature for the next 150 years with breakthroughs in Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, and Medicine. Copernicus, Galileo, Columbus, Vesalius, and other great names were capped off with Newton, who reduced the forces to Universal Laws. By 1700 all of the universe resembled a magnificent clock-like mechanism governed by laws understandable to the human mind. Inductive reasoning (observation-hypothesis- proposition-experiment-proof) had triumphed.
What followed next for more than a century was merely the application of the same methodology to Human Nature. Were there Universal Laws to be discovered in the behavior of man and societies? Could we in our ignorance of them be building governments and economies doomed to fail, just as surely as ignorance of the Law of Gravity would not keep us from injury if we stepped off a high place? In the Age of Reason John Locke, Baron Montesquieu and others discovered government principles, while Adam Smith and David Riccardo saw economic realities. American thinkers like Franklin, Jefferson and Madison all were immersed in this thinking. Our Declaration begins “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights…” These convictions were articulated almost a century before by John Locke in his Two Treatises on Civil Government. Locke, trained as a doctor and served as Secretary to Lord Ashley Cooper, was enlisted by the Carolina Trustee to justify why the British people deposed King James II in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. His answer introduced the central ideas of government as a “social contract”(Rousseau) set up by the people who possess Natural Rights in order to protect their lives and property and of the “right to rebel” when the government violates its given powers. The 1688 restrictions reasserted “no taxation without representation” that the colonists insisted upon in 1776. Lord Acton warned that “Power corrupts,” and Baron Montesquieu recommended “Checks and Balances” to limit governments with Constitutions. These ideas, and those of the American economic system, deserve more detail which we will turn to in future essays. Just remember this- The American system of government and economics was based on the best wisdom of the observations of human behavior and its consequences, and is embodied in its founding documents.
The problem with Common Sense is- It’s not so common anymore!