Who Owns America?

The incidence of Columbus Day poses the perennial question about what it really means to “discover” America and, by implication to “own” it. While conquest or the glory therein may have been prime among the motives of our earliest European settlers, any fair reading of history cannot so narrowly dismiss higher humane aspirations of the many who followed the conquistadores. Whether for religious or political asylum — simply, to be free of tyranny — or for more mundane outcomes (“streets of gold” or “the fountain of youth”), generations have risked their lives to find here an opportunity to make their hopes come true. In this presidential election year, when the very identity of America may well be at stake, the question of who and what is to define us has never been more in focus.

Our founders understood this well in citing “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as even more important or, rather, fundamental to the fulfillment of our material and spiritual needs. Without life and liberty, there is no way to thrive and grow. Furthermore, the primary task of government, as both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution affirm, is to secure life and the blessings of liberty.

What we have come to feel entitled to from government has increased exponentially over time in much the same way as a well-rounded education is no longer limited to the three R’s of reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic. Just as more is expected from the learning process today — like the physical and social sciences — so also we expect government to provide some oversight at least of our healthcare and retirement security. So important have our social programs become that their provisions, funding and viability are at the very heart of what is contested in the current election cycle. The American bishops have given clear and instructive guidelines (available readily at their website: www.usccb.org) on the steps conscientious voters should take regarding their electoral priorities in accord with a well-formed conscience.

Just as the meaning of “food” itself has generated its own sideshow in the current debate about the role of government in regulating lunch and soda servings, so also “healthcare” has become an increasingly broad rubric under which processes repugnant to life itself are being subsumed. This week we learn that France’s taxpayers will soon be paying for 100 percent of elective abortions. This in a country whose birthrate is already dangerous low and whose aging population will scarcely be able to be sustained under current demographic trends. Americans are at the crossroads of similar regulatory measures as the contested HHS ruling has clearly signaled. Both life and our fundamental liberties, the ground of all others rights, are threatened.

A more technical, but not less important, question is, what kind of economic-political system is more likely to provide the opportunity to exercise our fundamental rights — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — as well as the production and accessibility of our fundamental human needs, material and spiritual. The American model has always put individuals and their free associations in the ownership position, not the sovereign state. This has brought our country many years of economic and political stability unknown in countries from which so many immigrants to our shores have fled precisely to escape tyranny. Economic and political freedom has also built the kind of strength and security that renders a nation less vulnerable to attack and to engagement in wars it does not choose to fight. Indeed, if there is one key national security issue in this election, it is the state and future of our economy — and who will own it.