Jefferson, Abridged

The following two quotes are displayed on the walls of the Jefferson Monument:

“Almighty God hath created the mind free. All attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burthens…are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion…No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion. I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively.”

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

The first paragraph is today reduced simply to the freedom of religion. The meaning of that freedom is generally understood by Americans to mean that you are free to practice your own religion. The meaning of that freedom is further understood to mean that you will not have the practices of a religion imposed on you, as a matter of law, through the arm of the state. The religious right takes the freedom of religion to mean freedom from religions they don’t like, which is where fearmongering of Muslims comes from and warnings against the establishment, followed by the imposition, of a caliphate in the United States. The religious right then, almost in the same breath, imposes its own religion on individuals who don’t follow their religion, or who do, but don’t subscribe to their conclusions, i.e. women seeking abortions and gay people seeking to buy a cupcake.

But read what Jefferson wrote. He doesn’t advocate the thoughtless allegiance to a religion, especially not to your own religion. “Almighty God hath created the mind free.” If you feel that your religion is correct, you’re not going to convince anyone of that through force. The imposition or abolition of religion will win no allies. This is why government bans of religious attire in society are controversial—except in this case, one belief system, not one religious in nature, is imposed on another. Liberties become hierarchical, such that France’s desire for a secular society supplants the individual’s right to wear their religious accoutrements in public.

France’s actions more or less align with the desires of the American Left, I speculate. Since the left tends to be more non-religious—skeptical and contemptuous of religion, even—they generally agree that religion causes more harm than good. For evidence of this claim, the left points to the religious right. But the problem with the left’s wishes is that, in the pursuit of secularism, they seek to restrain people’s religious beliefs in other ways—i.e. by forcing the cupcake shop owner to sell his cupcakes. There’s no winning, at least not without argumentation, which is what Jefferson advocates: “…all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.” Ever the rationalist, Jefferson wants people to settle their differences not through force and government mandate, but through argumentation.

Don’t want to sell your cupcake to the gay couple? Okay, let’s talk about that, not only with the intent to understand your stance, but also to refute it; or, if you’re persuasive, to defend it. It’s important that we all understand why we continue to follow or have chosen to abandon policies that affect us all. As with any confrontation or showdown, there will be a loser, but one can respect an outcome even if the outcome is not in one’s favor. A society that follows rules blindly without question, through allegiance alone because of some belief in its sacred nature, is one doomed to suffer from blunt minds. That takes us to the second paragraph.

“…laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.” Why? So that we don’t continue under the “regimen of [our] barbarous ancestors.” We can be conservative in the pace of change and progress, but we cannot be allowed to stagnate—and we certainly can’t be allowed to re-instate policies that the modern human mind recognizes to be antiquated. The debate over the speed of that change is what partly differentiates our political parties, to say nothing of the direction that change should go. This second quote also helps explain why not all judges choose to interpret the constitution through the lens of the founders; even if one had a perfect understanding of their intentions, there’s no reason to believe that their intention is appropriate in today’s time. Imagine: slavery went from being a God-ordained right of the righteous to a reviled institution over the course of a couple of hundred years. Our understanding of ourselves, our relationship with each other, with the world, has undergone changes unfathomable to the enlightened minds of 1789. We can transplant the general wisdom of the past, but we must do so with the specific knowledge of the present.

Again, when thinking of today’s political parties, we can see how they move forward incrementally, where they seek to take big leaps, and how they seek to reverse the tide. This presidential race is exciting because there is a real feeling of urgency among the democratic candidates. Climate change is seen not only as a generational challenge, but as an existential one, as well. While its problems must be tackled on the national level, climate scientists and this batch of democratic candidates recognize that reversing the course of global warming is also going to take a level of international cooperation and engagement unlike anything tried before in the history of humankind—that’s not at all an exaggeration.

Of course, we already have a large degree of international exchange through trade, but tackling climate change will be different because everyone will be working toward one common goal. With trade, you’re constantly changing your output and demand depending on your competitive advantage and opportunity costs. With global warming, the goals are clear, the timelines are more or less clear, and the consequences of success or failure are generally known—it’s my hunch that the catastrophes will be much worse than we know. Financial interests allowed the capitalistic model to intertwine the world in a complex web of trade deals, while liberal ideals put humanistic goals in the international consciousness. These connections are already made, it would make sense to strengthen them further and coordinate its energy into a project that benefits all.

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang tells us that automation is coming. The fourth industrial revolution that will usher in an era of artificial intelligence and automation is already underway. It will displace millions of workers, disrupt a number of industries, destroy some industries and create others. We will witness creative destruction at a rapid pace, but this time around it’s not clear how we will emerge from it. What is clear is that we should prepare for it; the way to do that, according to Andrew Yang, is through Universal Basic Income (UBI). His plan is to give to every American, unconditionally, $1000 a month, for them to spend how they please. Whether the money is received as a necessary stipend, as breathing room, or purely as extra disposable income doesn’t matter. What matters is that Americans receive this money because this will be one way to spread the benefits that will, at least slightly, offset the cost that comes from A.I. and automation. If government is the enemy of business, this would appear to me to be government’s way of being least intrusive to business, if the market means to continue bulldozing everything in its path—which, of course it does. The alternative would be to ban or delay technological rollouts, regulate to the point of halting innovation, or, as Libertarians fear, stealing the fruits of business’ labor to give to those who provide nothing. In a way UBI is already seen in this manner, but because UBI would also replace a lot of current social welfare programs, it should be seen by those who fear it as a much lesser evil than what currently exists through taxation.

It would be instructive if we could re-visit the words of Jefferson more often when we’re faced with a new debate, or the same debate told differently. If progress is not made, reflections on why that is and whether that is good should be had in an honest matter, to be reinforced or disavowed through argumentation. Honestly, I’m just tired of abortion being such an issue. There’s my two cents.

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