Extreme Makeover: Founding Principles Edition

statue_of_liberty_3This op-ed was first published on Forbes.com.

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

From the book 1984, by George Orwell

George Orwell wrote these words 65 years ago. If he were alive today, he would surely recognize President Obama’s second inaugural address as an attempt to control the past (and therefore the future) by redefining our nation’s core founding principles.

The president’s intellectual sleight of hand began when he quoted 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.”

He then referred to our nation as “a union founded on the principles of liberty and equality.”

At first, President Obama’s reference to liberty and equality sounds right. Our country was certainly founded on the principle of liberty. After all, we have a Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Liberty means the right to live your life as you see fit provided you respect the rights of others.

But what about the principle of “equality?” Why isn’t there a Statue of Equality? And why doesn’t our Constitution or Bill of Rights contain the word “equality”?

The answer lies in the meaning of the phrase “all men are created equal.” Our Founding Fathers believed all human beings have a common nature, including individual conscience and free will, and have natural rights that flow from that nature. When they said “all men are created equal,” they meant we possess equal natural rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  In other words, we are entitled to equal freedom.

Is that what President Obama means by the term “equality?” Is he using equality to mean equal freedom or does he mean something else?

It appears that when President Obama refers to “equality,” he is not talking about equal freedom but instead the idea of equal income, wealth and status, meaning equal result. After all, he says he wants to “spread the wealth” by taking from some and giving to others. And his calls for “collective action” often involve government-imposed equalization through preferences, subsidies, special rights, mandates and bailouts that favor some individuals and businesses over others.

This sets up a struggle that pits equal freedom against equal result since achieving equal result usually requires sacrificing equal freedom. For example, if you want to limit how far a person can rise relative to others, you must deny him equal freedom by imposing special burdens that hold him back or special taxes that limit his income and wealth.

John Adams anticipated this struggle in 1790 when he wrote, “That all men have one common nature is a principle which will now universally prevail. Equal rights and equal duties will in a just sense, I hope, be inferred from it. But equal ranks and equal property never can be inferred from it, any more than equal understanding, agility, vigor or beauty. Equal laws are all that ever can be derived from human equality.”

Adams would undoubtedly recognize President Obama’s inaugural address for what it is – an attempt to change the meaning of the phrase “all men are created equal” so it no longer means equal freedom but instead means the incompatible idea of equal result. It remains to be seen whether this attempt to control and distort our perception of the past (and therefore control the future) will succeed.

About Jack Painter

Jack Painter is a corporate attorney in Cincinnati, Ohio.