When Government Gets It Backwards, Reread Jefferson

By Steve Buckstein

Two hundred and forty-one years ago this July 4, the world was gifted with one of the most significant political documents ever written. When Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, he boldly stated:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Jefferson realized that government and society are not synonymous. He argued that government’s purpose is to protect the inalienable rights of the individuals that make up society. He understood that such rights are not granted by government; and that any rights government does claim to grant are really claims on someone else’s right to life, liberty, or property. What would he think of today’s politicians in Washington, D.C. and Salem, Oregon who propose law after law ordaining right after right?

Jefferson also understood that he wasn’t elected President in 1801 to “run the country.” He was elected President to run the executive branch of a limited, constitutional government that coincidentally he helped to create. To reinforce these concepts, why not read the Declaration again this Independence Day and consider the power it had—and still has—to change our world for the better.


Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He was the 2016 recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Award by the Taxpayer Association of Oregon and the Oregon Executive Club.

The Crisis of Common Sense

I’ve taken two tours of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Though it was full of vivid history about the signers of the Declaration, it was nearly silent about one relatively unsung hero of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but it was his friend Thomas Paine who stirred the new nation to action.

Most literate Americans read Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, in the months before our country declared its independence from his native England on July 4, 1776. Later that year after the war for independence started, Paine published The Crisis, which began, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country, but he that stands now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

In Common Sense, Paine wrote, “Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” He argued for free trade and individual liberty with phrases that captured the imagination of his adopted countrymen.

Paine and Jefferson realized that government and society are not synonymous. They argued that government’s purpose is to protect the inalienable rights of the individuals that make up society. They understood that any right granted by government must be paid for by diminishing someone else’s right to life, liberty, or property. What would they think of today’s politicians in Washington, D.C. and Salem, Oregon who propose law after law ordaining right after right?

In the introduction to Common Sense, Paine wrote, “[A] long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”

Paine and Jefferson didn’t wait for time to convert people. We at Cascade Policy Institute aren’t waiting either; we’re providing the Intellectual Ammunition today’s freedom fighters need to win new battles for liberty.

Many Americans believe modern society requires more government control; we believe just the opposite. Free individuals are perfectly able to run their own lives today, just as they were in 1776. Paine and Jefferson would be dismayed at the size of modern governments, and so are we.

Read Common Sense and The Crisis this Independence Day, remember what the holiday is really all about, and do what you can to reinvigorate the ideals Jefferson and Paine proclaimed.

(This Cascade Commentary is adapted from Steve Buckstein’s President’s Corner column in the Summer 2001 Cascade Update newsletter.)