By Lanny Morgnanesi
Lately there's been much reading of old but relevant documents, like the Constitution. For my part, I've been reading old but relevant books.
One is The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His 18th-century writings helped inspire the French Revolution and probably the American Revolution. In this small book he uses a familiar term later picked up in our Declaration of Independence: "unalienable rights."
Until recently, I thought unalienable rights were ones that could not be taken away. But from Rousseau I learned they actually are rights that cannot be given away.
That's quite a difference. Rousseau believed people have a tendency to relinquish their freedom, but that under God they lack the moral authority to do so.
In many ways, Rousseau was instructing us on how to avoid the sad situation we now face.
The Social Contract says all government is an agreement among people, and that these agreements require that some rights be given up - but not unalienable ones.
Rousseau notes that prior to government, humans were totally free under natural law. A person could murder another without legal or moral consequence, just as a fox can kill a rabbit. Realizing civilization could not advance this way, our species formed social contracts as a way to control the bad and increase the good.
In these contracts, we surrender individual freedom for the betterment of the whole. We agree not to commit murder, for example, and to be governed by a law punishing us if we do. As Rousseau put it, the "individual will" is replaced by the "general will," which benefits all.
The Social Contract tells us how to create the ideal state while acknowledging that even a perfect state erodes. "The body politics, no less than the body of a man, begins to die as soon as it is born, and bears within itself the causes of its own destruction," he wrote.
Washington, these days, drives home this point.
Rousseau says the biggest threat comes when the government created by and for the "general will" starts to govern on behalf of the "particular will." In America, the particular will is better known as special interests.
Rousseau contends that when special interests - like Wall Street or the National Rifle Association - become too strong, "contradictions and disputes arise; and even the best opinion is not allowed to prevail unchallenged."
In the end, the general will is silenced and citizens act only on behalf of personal motives. Inequitable laws are passed and it becomes time to remake the social contract and the state.
While it could be argued that what's good for General Motors is good for America, few could argue that our government is well run. It lacks direction, is absent of a unified mission, has caused a shameful decline in our world prestige and has eviscerated our once-mighty economy.
Rousseau would call ours a failed state. Sadly, his large-scale solutions are wise but not practical.
An easier fix can be found in the simple truth of another great theorist and philosopher. Erasmus, the Dutch Renaissance humanist, once told a young monarch: "Whenever kings invite wisdom to their councils and cast out those evil counselors - ambition, anger, greed, and flattery - The Commonwealth flourishes in every way."
This one sentence is a great start to making things right for America. We have elections here, so let the casting out begin. To not do so is like giving away an unalienable right - which at least one great man said we have absolutely no right to do.