The proper purpose of government, wrote Thomas Jefferson, is to “guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.”1 The government “shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”2

In accordance with this view of the purpose of government, the founders established a republic in which the government was constitutionally limited to the protection of individual rights—the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. In this new republic, men were free to think, to produce, and to trade in accordance with their own best judgment; thus, they were free to thrive in accordance with their intelligence, their ability, their initiative. The result was astounding.

Nineteenth-century America was a land of unparalleled innovation and prosperity—and further political achievement. In addition to countless inventions that sprang up—including the steamboat, the cotton gin, vulcanized rubber, the telephone, the incandescent light, the electric power plant, the skyscraper, and the  safety elevator—and in addition to the vital industries that arose or were revolutionized—such as the railroad, oil, and steel industries—19th-century America witnessed the end of slavery, which was recognized as a violation of the basic principle of the land.

Between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century, America came as close to being a fully rights-respecting society as any country has ever come. Men were essentially free to live their own lives, by their own judgment, for their own sake.

Unfortunately, although the Land of Liberty was a great success, it would not and could not last.

The founders established America on the principle of individual rights, but neither they nor the thinkers who followed them identified the deeper philosophic foundation on which this principle depends, namely, the morality of egoism—the idea that being moral consists in pursuing the values on which one’s life and happiness depend. In the absence of this foundation, Americans have embraced philosophical ideas that are contrary to individual rights.

Over the past century, Americans have increasingly accepted the morality of altruism—the notion that being moral consists in self-sacrificially serving others—and they have increasingly applied this morality to the realm of politics. Consequently, our government is no longer committed to “restrain men from injuring one another [and] leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.” Rather, our government regularly—and increasingly—“take[s] from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned” and redistributes that bread to those who have not earned it. . . .


1 Quoted in Thomas G. West, Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), p. 136.

2 Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801,

3 Theodore Roosevelt, New Nationalism Speech, 1910,

4 Franklin D. Roosevelt, address in Chicago, Ill., October 14, 1936,

5 John F. Kennedy, address before the American Newspaper Publishers Association, New York City, April 27, 1961,

6 William Jefferson Clinton, State of the Union Address, January 19, 1999,

7 Barack Obama, Keynote Address, Sojourners/Call to Renewal-sponsored Pentecost conference, June 2006,; Penny Starr, “Obama Calls Health Care a ‘Moral Obligation,’ But Pro-lifers Say Tax Money for Abortions Is ‘Moral’ Issue,” August 21, 2009,; Obama, Commencement Speech at Wesleyan University, 2008,

8 New York Times correspondent Otto D. Tolischus, quoted in Melvin Rader, No Compromise: The Conflict Between Two Worlds (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1939), pp. 23–24.

9 Quoted in Edouard Calic in Unmasked. Two Confidential Interviews with Hitler in 1931, translated by R. H. Barry (London: Chatto & Windus, 1971), pp. 31–33, 86 (emphasis added).

10 Quoted in Michael Oakeshott, The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1941), p. 193.

11 Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, translated by Ralph Manheim (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), p. 298.

12 Quoted in Oakeshott, The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe, p. 164.

13 Alfredo Rocco, quoted in Rader, No Compromise, pp. 230, 233.

14 Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, part 1 (1875),

15 Keynote Address, Sojourners/Call to Renewal-sponsored Pentecost conference.

16 “Barack Obama’s Feb. 12 Speech,” February 12, 2008,

17 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 97–99.

18 Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, 6:385-386, as translated by Roger Scruton in Kant (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 83 (emphasis removed from “necessitation” and added to “unwillingly”); Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Mary Gregor (London: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 40.

19 John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1979), pp. 47–48.

20 Auguste Comte, The Catechism of Positive Religion, translated by Richard Congreve (London: John Chapman, 1852), pp. 309, 313, 332–33 (emphasis removed).

21 John Stuart Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism (AnnArbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), pp. 146, 148.

22 John Dewey, The School and Society (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980), pp. 19–20.

23 Dewey, The School and Society, pp. 10–11.

24 William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” (emphasis added).

25 Benjamin R. Barber, “A Revolution in Spirit,” The Nation, January 22, 2009,

26 Charles C. Moskos, A Call to Civic Service: National Service for Country and Community (New York: Free Press, 1988), p. 179.

27 Charles C. Moskos, “National Service and Its Enemies,” in National Service: Pro and Con, edited by Williamson M. Evers (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1990), p. 193.

28 Charles Moskos, “Patriotism-Lite Meets the Citizen-Soldier,” in United We Serve: National Service and the Future of Citizenship, edited by E. J. Dionne Jr. et al. (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2003), pp. 39–40.

29 Barack Obama, “A Call to Service,” September 11, 2008,,9171,1840636,00.html; Serve America Act Passes the Senate, March 26, 2009,

30 John Bridgeland, quoted in Scott Neuman, “National Service Act Continues U.S. Tradition,” April 21, 2009,

31 James Perry, quoted in Neuman, “National Service Act Continues U.S. Tradition.”

32 Text of H.R. 1444: Congressional Commission on Civic Service Act,

33 Facts Are Stubborn Things, posted by Macon Phillips, August 4, 2009,

34 Deuteronomy 15:11.

35 Isaiah 10:1–2.

36 Luke 6:30 and 18:22; Matthew 19:24.

37 Acts 4–5 (emphasis removed).

38 Nels Ferre, Christianity and Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 226.

39 Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, a concise translation, edited by Timothy McDermott (Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1989), p. 391.

40 Charles Lincoln Taylor Jr., “Old Testament Foundations,” in Christianity and Property, edited by Joseph F. Fletcher (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1947), pp. 22–23.

41 Barack Obama, “A Politics of Conscience,” June 23, 2007,

42 Quoted in Laurie Goodstein, “Faith Has Role in Politics, Obama Tells Church,” June 24, 2007,

43 Obama’s answer to a question from “Joe the Plumber,”

44 Peter Hamby, “Obama: GOP doesn’t own faith issue,”

45 Obama, “Call to Renewal” Keynote Address, June 28, 2006,

46 Obama, “A Politics of Conscience,” June 23, 2007,

47 Stephanie Condon, “Obama Addresses Health Reform Myths with Religious Leaders,”

48 “This is my hope. This is my prayer,” Remarks of President Barack Obama, National Prayer Breakfast, February 5, 2009,, (emphasis added).

49 Dan Gilgoff, “A New Role for Faith in Obama’s White House,” August 31, 2009,

50 Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976), pp. 9, 167–68.

51 Heschel, Man Is Not Alone, p. 171.

52 Quoted in Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958), p. 308.

53 I address only Kant’s arguments in this article, as his are reputed to be the most rigorous of the secular arguments for altruism. Other philosophers have proposed secular arguments for the propriety of sacrifice, but all of their arguments involve appeals to God, or appeals to the masses, or appeals to pity, or appeals to force, or ad hominem (personal attacks), or arguments from intimidation. For more on this, see my article “Capitalism and the Moral High Ground,” TOS, Winter 2008–09, vol. 3, no. 4.

54 Kant, Groundwork, pp. 8–9.

55 Kant presents additional arguments for the morality of sacrifice, scattered throughout a few books, but they are all variants of this one, which sets forth his central claim. For instance, elsewhere he replaces “God” with the “noumenal world” (i.e., another dimension), and “God’s commandments” with the “categorical imperative” (i.e., the requirement of self-sacrifice).

56 Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, p. 76.

57 Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, p. 132.

58 Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965), p. 639.

59 Kant, Lectures on Philosophical Theology, translated by Allen Wood and Gertrude Clark (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 123. See also Critique of Practical Reason, pp. 90–91; and Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, translated by Theodore M. Green and Hoyt H. Hudson (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), pp. 89–91.

60 Kant, Lectures on Philosophical Theology, pp. 122–23. See also Groundwork, p. 59.

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