Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Civics Lesson

Evaluating political candidates can be a difficult exercise, even for those of us who have followed the issues for years. Candidates often offer conflicting proposals as they seek to appeal to disparate groups. They often toss about vague generalities about reducing crime and improving government efficiency, but seldom tell us what specific actions they will take to accomplish these goals. This year's mayoral candidates are no exception.

How then, do you select a candidate to support? What criteria should you use in making such a decision? Does it really matter which candidate is elected? The answers to these questions are vitally important and yet, many regular voters could not give you a clear, understandable answer.

Many voters select a candidate on the basis of a particular issue, such as his position on light rail. Others select a candidate based on his past performance in public office. Some select a candidate based on more superficial factors, such as the endorsements he has received (which means, the opinions of others). While each of these can offer us useful clues, they are insufficient in and of themselves.

A proper answer must begin by identifying the purpose of government. While space does not permit me to present a complete argument, we can find the answer in the Declaration of Independence:
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. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

To the Founding Fathers each individual has a natural right to take the actions necessary to sustain and enjoy his life (so long as he respects the mutual rights of others). The purpose of government is the protection of this right.

Rights pertain to action--hence the Founders' choice of "pursuit of happiness". Rights do not guarantee success, but rather, the freedom to pursue success. Rights are a sanction to act without interference from others; they allow us to act as we choose, so long as we to not interfere with others acting as they choose. Rights allow us to choose our career; they do not guarantee success in that career or even a job in a particular industry. Rights allow us to choose where to live; they do not guarantee that we can afford a home. Rights allow us to pursue our dreams, no matter how lofty; they do not guarantee that we will soar to incredible heights.

Further, rights pertain to individuals--all individuals. There is no such thing as "Hispanic rights", or "gay rights", or "women's rights", or "worker's rights". There are only individual rights, and they apply to Hispanics and Anglos, gays and straights, women and men, workers and employers. (For a more complete explanation of these ideas, see the works of Ayn Rand.)

The standard by which we should judge a political candidate is his willingness to protect our individual rights, his willingness to protect our freedom to act in the pursuit of our values.

But, you may ask, isn't it sometimes necessary for us to put aside our own interests for the "public good" or the "general welfare"? Isn't it sometimes necessary for government to make us do things--such as pay for roads or public education--that we would not do voluntarily?

The answer is resoundingly "NO". If we abandon the principle of individual rights, if we permit government to compel certain actions or prohibit others (certain actions, such as murder, rape, and theft violate individual rights and are properly prohibited) then elections become a battle over whose rights will be violated and who will benefit.

And this is precisely what we see today. The leading candidates for mayor want to impose restrictions on developers, mandate "green" building policies, and compel taxpayers to finance rail projects. They want to dictate how some people live and work, and the only question is who the victims will be. What is certain is that there will be victims.

As you ponder the mayoral election, these are the issues that must be considered. You must think about your future. You must consider whether you wish to live in a city that recognizes and protects your freedom, or one that dictates, regulates, and restricts your actions. You must consider whether you want to be free to pursue your dreams and aspirations, or be forced to live as others determine that you should. Your decisions should not be made lightly, but rather, as if your life depends upon them. Because in fact it does.

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