Reflections on a lesser-known part of the Declaration of Independence remind us that good government is needed to secure our unalienable rights.
"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."
Most Americans are familiar with this famous sentence at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. Its powerful phrases echo in our collective memory.
But few of us recall the next sentence: "That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
The first sentence addresses the question of what; the second answers the question of how. We have ignored the latter at our peril.
These sentences in the Declaration of Independence are the basis of two fundamental points that inform much of what I do and think about in my new role as director of the GOVERNING Institute.
First, government exists to secure for all of us the rights that are ours. If there is no government, then our rights, however unalienable, remain insecure. The police officer is a government employee, paid and sanctioned by the government. It is the bullet in the police officer's gun that allows me to sleep safe and secure in my home at night.
Today, it is common to talk of government as if it were something separate and apart from us, and separate and apart from the exercise of our most basic rights. But, in fact, in view of the Founders, we are the government, you and I. Our rights and our government are inseparable.
Second, government derives its just power from the consent of the governed. Many of us in positions of power and authority in America hold a barely veiled contempt for the regular folks in our country. Truth be told, we don't trust democracy much. That's a problem. Public officials need to re-engage with citizens in every way possible, dealing with them in mutual respect based on their "unalienable rights" which they hold regardless of their wealth, or income or education.
Today, it is fashionable to denigrate government and vilify politics. This is perilously wrong. We need strong, accountable government. Each and every one of us has a political responsibility to make it so.