The following is an op-ed published in the Deseret News today.
Article 1, Section 27 of the Utah Constitution states: “Frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is essential to the security of individual rights and the perpetuity of free government.” As the 2013 general session of the Utah legislature begins next Monday, this “essential” process deserves more attention and much more action.
Along the campaign trail, most candidates claim they will uphold individual rights and promote freedom. Our Constitution suggests that success in achieving these laudable goals will come not from a single vote at the ballot box or in a bill sponsored by a legislator, but by our collective recurrence to fundamental principles.
What are fundamental principles? They are important truths upon which our actions must be based if they are to be legitimate and praiseworthy. Returning to these principles is key to living in accordance with them; as the late Stephen R. Covey once wrote, “You can’t live principles you can’t understand.”
There is perhaps no more concise and potent summary of political principles than in the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson and his compatriots summarized and defiantly proclaimed key principles that gave rise to a revolution in order to better secure individual rights and throw off an unfree government in pursuit of political freedom. So what are some of these principles?
The first fundamental principle we can observe is that there exist self-evident truths — not opinions or majority vote decisions, but self-evident, inviolable truths observable by all. This means that if something is wrong, then a legislative act or a mandate cannot make it right; government actions must strictly abide by these self-evident truths. We should reject anything that is not consistent with them.
Another principle to be gleaned from the Declaration is that each individual possesses certain rights that are unalienable, or in other words, rights which we always have and cannot give up. The right to live, the right to exercise our individual liberty, the right to possess property — these are only a few examples of many such rights. Our unalienable, God-given rights are not powers bestowed upon us by the government. Instead, they pre-date and thus supersede any government. Whatever the government does, it must protect and hold sacred these unalienable rights.
This takes us to the next fundamental principle, namely, that if government is to be legitimate, it must secure our individual rights. The Declaration states that “governments are instituted among men” in order “to secure (our) rights” and further, if any government begins to violate individual rights rather than protect them, “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.” Defying unjust authority and demanding that government not violate our rights is therefore established as another principle essential to “the security of individual rights and the perpetuity of free government.”
Importantly, the Declaration also states that legitimate laws must be based on the consent of the governed — not just the majority of them. The Founders loudly rejected democracy as an ideal form of government, many of them eloquently observing that it always degraded into tyranny by majority rule. When the majority is able to impose whatever it wants upon the dissenting minority, especially when it involves a violation of their individual rights, then it cannot be correctly claimed that the government operates with the consent of those who it governs.
Utah’s Constitution is not unique in declaring that these and other fundamental principles must be refreshed in our memory in order to better secure individual rights and perpetuate free government. Arizona and Washington have similar clauses, and they each are derived from a line in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, passed just one month before the Declaration of Independence was adopted. It declares that “no free government, or the blessing of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by … frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”
With a new legislative session upon us here in Utah, we citizens would benefit greatly from recurring to the fundamental principles that helped shape this nation. More importantly, as bills are proposed which would violate our liberty and help perpetuate an unfree government, we should help persuade politicians to understand and comply with our Constitution’s wise words about how we can achieve success.