In the February 5 edition of the New York Times, Edward Rothstein speculates about mankind's ability to "live without its utopias." Toward the end of his article, "Paradise Lost," he quotes from a 1974 book of the Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick:
"One persistent strand in utopian thinking is the feeling that there is some set of principles obvious enough to be accepted by all men of good will, precise enough to give unambiguous guidance in particular situations, clear enough so that all will realize its dictates, and complete enough to cover all problems which actually arise."
Alas, Mr. Rothstein is skeptical. "But what set of principles can possibly be so obvious, precise, clear and complete?", he asks. "The only widely accepted belief seems to be that someday such principles will be found."
At this point I have to make it clear that I had nothing whatever to do with the commissioning of the aforementioned article. I am not even familiar with the author, so much so that I have to make a public appeal to obtain his mailing address.
I owe him a debt of gratitude, for this is a heaven-sent opportunity to inform the world that just such a set of principles was brought into existence, oh, about two centuries ago in a (then) little-known place called America. The men who came together for the purpose of forging and articulating these principles had assembled vast storehouses of knowledge. Between them, they may be said to have read just about everything there was to read. Between them, they may be said to have familiarized themselves with, and weighed the consequences of, all known occurrences in history.
As they readied themselves to assemble principles upon which a new kind of nation, a new concept of society might be built, they met, they corresponded, they contemplated, they revised - they did whatever it took to crystallize the principles and incorporate them into a manual, providing foundations for the rest of time. Even then, they never ceased to correspond, contemplate and revise. Indeed, the manual they had created provides for its own revision in a peaceful and orderly manner.
The manual is called the Constitution of the United States of America. Its legitimate revisions are called Amendments.
Now, if Edward Rothstein who writes for the New York Times needs to engage in wishful thinking about some utopian future, it is reasonable to assume that millions and millions of our fellow-citizens are blissfully oblivious of the heritage that is theirs to behold, to enjoy, to celebrate.
The principles that would deliver us to Utopia must be obvious, precise, clear and complete - four requirements laid down by philosopher Robert Nozick, echoed by the journalist Edward Rothstein. They correspond naturally to four core principles of the Founding Fathers, the four points of America's compass: the rule of law, individual rights, security of property, and a common American identity.
Living by the rule of law must be obvious to all men of good will. The alternative is to live by the whims of mortals. The Constitution of the United States provides the law. Those who seek to adjust it to their taste without going through the amendment process propose to replace the consistency of the law with their ever-changing whim, however well-intentioned.
The concept of individual rights is precise. Only rights which are identical for each individual citizen in the land can ensure equal treatment by the law. Group rights cancel out individual rights by mandating unequal treatment. Thus rights attributed to membership in an ethnic, racial, or sex-based group actually suspend the rule of law.
The principle that calls for security of property is clear. The land you own, the shoes you wear, the money you earn is either yours, or it isn't. If anyone - above all, government - can take it from you under one pretext or another, it isn't. "What about zoning, what about taxes?" people ask. Officials of a community are elected to make certain rules from time to time. And government has every right to tax so long as the revenue is used for the benefit of all. But if government can confiscate, if government can take from one and give it to another, property is no longer secure. Property and liberty are joined at the hip. We have both or neither.
And finally - complete. What could be more complete than our common American identity? It is the repository for our common language, morality, work ethic, and our shared belief in the preceding principles. It has enabled generation upon generation who sought a place under its umbrella to leave behind the agonies and failures that had caused them to leave their places of birth. It has stood for freedom and independence, both for the new nation and for its individual citizens.
Above all, "American" became synonymous with the word "better."
And therein lies the answer to dreamers of Utopia. The perfection they seek exists only in books. Attempts to create it on Earth cause untold suffering and death. Paradise on Earth is a place where it is better than somewhere else; a place where it is better today than yesterday; a place where tomorrow may be better still.
Such a place was brought into existence by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, George Mason, and those working with them. And once we understand that the key word is "better," their legacy will be seen as having benefitted every man, woman and child, regardless of race, religion or ethnic origin.
It is in the nature of man to scan distant horizons when the answers are right around us. The time has come to take stock, focus on our common heritage, and appoint leaders who will be guided by America's obvious, precise, clear and complete principles.
Thus do we stay on course to a place the rest of the world can only dream about.