The Declaration of Independence is a fading memory. Where once it was revered as the secular foundation of a people, it’s now seen mainly as a curiosity that, at best, justifies an annual rite of fireworks and potato salad. For a few of us, the Declaration remains a beacon, though it flickers, as a candle on a stormy night.
The most stirring passage offers us to claim our rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” but those rights seem sadly alienable today. Complementary passages remind us of what we must do in the face of tyranny. Yet, the Tree of Liberty stands before us, molting and desiccated.
Legal scholar Randy Barnett argues Americans should treat the Declaration as a charter document as weighty as the Constitution. He writes:
[T]he Declaration was considered to be a legal document by which the revolutionaries justified their actions and explained why they were not truly traitors. It represented, as it were, a literal indictment of the Crown and Parliament, in the very same way that criminals are now publicly indicted for their alleged crimes by grand juries representing ‘the People.’
But the Executive has other ideas.
“If you wanted or if you think you need to have weapons to take on the government,” said our aged president recently, “you need F-15s and maybe some nuclear weapons.”
In some ways, Biden’s not wrong. He’s just channeling Thrasymachus. But if Professor Barnett is right, we have a duty to confront a vital-but-uncomfortable question: at what point must Americans take it upon ourselves to revolt?
In other words, what is the revolutionary trigger?
Before howls of Insurrectionist! issue from partisan ventriloquist dummies, I refer to a legal document that, at the very least, warrants seditious questions. Indeed, we’re duty-bound to question authority, whether or not the Declaration is a proto-charter. Under such conditions, another American Revolution might seem paradoxical.
Revolution is in our DNA.
So let’s explore it, moving through the relevant passages, discussing matters as we go.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
The consent of the governed. Only those inculcated by the state’s official civics-book authors could argue that democratic voting is consent, much less that submission to power is consent.
In his book When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice, philosophy professor Jason Brennan argues there is no theory of state authority, nor special immunity, without gaping holes that must be filled with F-15s, nukes, and a supportive bandwagon of hooligans. He writes:
[If] governments do indeed have authority, it seems like there should be some morally relevant property or set of properties that explains why governments have authority. (…) If there is such a property, then it seems plausible that people should be able to identify it.
Brennan adds that scholars have spent a lot of time and energy trying unsuccessfully to identify that property, and he comes with the receipts.
But what about voters? Brennan adds:
[W]e have good grounds to think that people would believe in government authority even if governments have no such authority. Empirical work generally finds we have a psychological bias to ascribe authority to others, even in cases where there clearly isn’t any. Governments do everything in their power to reinforce that bias.
Not only might it be that an inborn submission instinct governs the masses, but it could also be that authorities feed them a steady diet of civic mythology around voting and elections.
Alas, voting is a Lotto ticket for partisans. That is, the odds your vote will amount to anything are low. If I vote, it’s not consent. If I don’t vote, it’s still not consent. And without consent, there are no just powers.
–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
In the absence of just powers, we have the right to alter or abolish our government.
Now, one might argue that, absent any real consent mechanism, our system allows representatives to alter (amend) the Constitution, which would alter the government at least. But such representation would be neither legitimate nor effective, if one thinks the Declaration is the law.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
One can no longer deny our system of government has become destructive of those proverbial ends. So doesn’t it need to be abolished? Maybe we have become accustomed to, inured to, this corrupted form.
Acknowledging the dictates of prudence, I’m no more calling for the destruction of Chesterton’s fence than I am fomenting Jacobin behavior. It’s just that the Constitution has become a dead letter. Our government officials are corrupt. Federalism has been weakened. And our system is a negative-sum game run by profiteers and sociopaths. So,
[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
There you have it, in plain text. One might argue that today’s “long train of abuses and usurpations” doesn’t hold up compared to the colonists’ grievances. Let us see.
In “The Second Declaration of Independence,” I list a series of grievances I think are no less justifiable than those enumerated by the early patriots.
After all, our authorities:Take from us without our consent and prevent us from governing ourselves.Deny us guarantees in the Bill of Rights, especially Amendments I, II, IV, V, VI, VIII, IX, X.Threaten, regulate, and oppress us, too often without legislation or due process.Lie to us and keep secrets from us, while evading accountability.Divide and disenfranchise us through the spectacles of partisan polarization and national elections.Seek to control us, that is, to engineer society as if it were a machine and we were its cogs.Force us to subsidize failed agencies, systems, and institutions.Grant favors or subsidies to reward the powerful at the poor’s expense.Threaten, attack, and imprison those who share the truth about them, criminalizing both demands for accountability and peaceful dissent.Trade on and profit from inside knowledge of the very laws they make.Feed our fears to grow the military-industrial complex out of all reasonable proportions.Threaten to confiscate our means of defending ourselves from criminals and tyrants. Tax us without legitimacy through currency manipulation.Conscript the media and social platforms into deception and censorship on their behalf.Assault our shared moral principles, Common Law, and Constitution.Spy on the People and deny us our privacy.Auction power to corporate bidders and horse trade with our property to expand their power.Mandate commercial relationships or associations we would never choose otherwise.Create corrupt monopsonies of scientific research.Declare “wars” on the People for “crimes” that have no victim.Invade countries that represent no credible threat to the People, nor our pursuit of happiness.Use unlimited debt to buy votes, expand their power, burdening our children and grandchildren.Threaten legal action, heap charges on us, or seize our property without due process.Inculcate our children with illiberal doctrines, identity politics, or bankrupt ideologies.Claim expertise and decision-making rights on matters about which they have insufficient knowledge.Force us to use their debased monies and prevent us from using our own networks and stores of value.Create perverse, unintended effects by meddling in complex systems they don’t fully understand.Oppress us repeatedly in the name of the common good.Put the interests of elites over the needs of the People.Obstruct our pursuits and diminish our happiness.
If even a few of these rise to the level of abuse the colonists suffered under King George III, we must ask: What, if not these, counts as a revolutionary trigger?
As the US government continues its efforts to sino-form America, across the Pacific, brave Chinese dissidents are showing the way, despite their terrible odds.
The words of Thrasymachus haunt us, as do the words of Joseph R. Biden. The police powers of the United States government are mighty, so maybe justice really is nothing more than the advantage of the stronger. Of course, it didn’t take “F-15s” or “nuclear weapons” for the Taliban to get the world’s greatest fighting force out of Afghanistan. I don’t know many ordinary Americans with the courage of Pashtun cave dwellers, but I hope they’re out there.
Like many who admire the Declaration of Independence, I’m one who resists violence. After all, other human beings are sacred because I accept that they have a right to life, liberty, and the rest. But like Buddhist warrior monks, we are not pacifists. If we are forced to defend ourselves, we will. Thus, there must be some clear threshold of mass self-defense.
When is it appropriate to counter abuses and usurpations with violence? Such is an important question, and I suspect answers will cross the domains of morality and strategy.
But maybe we don’t need violence at all.
In these very pages, I wrote:
We have to adopt that mien of silent, dogged resistance. Wherever possible, we have to drag our feet, refuse to comply, and make the costs of enforcement too high for authorities.
Next, we have to practice satyagraha. This Sanskrit word means roughly “truth force,” and Mahatma Gandhi taught his followers to use satyagraha against the British Raj. The Freedom Riders and Civil Rights activists used similar tactics in the Jim Crow South. Satyagraha is thus a nonviolent means, even as it exerts enormous pressure against powerful hierarchies.
Today we have technological tools that Gandhi or MLK never had. So in practicing satyagraha, we must do so through the best available means….
The seeds of change are quietly being sown by an army of software developers obsessed with the idea of self-government. Many early experiments will fail. But some will succeed, and massive constituencies will form around those successes.
But until any revolutionary moment (or evolutionary process) arrives, we must figure out who our new Guards will be and what will keep them from turning into Gollums. In the meantime, we must write a new American story, all while we draw a line in the sand. That new story should perhaps include a shadow Constitution, one without all the loopholes that progressives and populists have used to leave the current document in tatters.
Maybe we must also form a mutual society around that story, similar to the Freemasons. That way, we can pass the torch of legitimacy in consent to a new generation. Indeed, maybe it’s time a few of us came together to reimagine our great charter, as every great civilization needs its sacred texts. The Declaration of Independence remains such a text. It can fit nicely into a canon that includes an upgraded rulebook for the New Guards.
If you are awake and alert in this liminal age, you realize those New Guards might just be us.