By Jay Eshelman
There is a truth not universally acknowledged today. But it should be.
Perhaps no single phenomenon reflects the positive potential of human nature as much as intrinsic motivation, the inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacities, to explore, and to learn.
In 1985, this researched finding by the University of Rochester’s Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, in their peer-reviewed “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development and Well-Being,” supported the Age of Enlightenment philosophies of René Descartes, David Hume, John Locke, Francis Bacon and Adam Smith, not only defending their universal claim that men are by nature free and equal, but that individuals have inalienable rights, including life, liberty and property. Most importantly, this research demonstrates why the free expression of individual liberty is in the best interest of human society as a whole.
Equally important is the recognition that the first American anecdotal support to this finding occurred several decades before John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government” ever established the modern benchmark of individual liberty. After all, John Locke’s father was a lawyer and a member of a group of English Protestants who regarded the Reformation of the Church of England as incomplete and sought to simplify and regulate forms of worship. Coincidentally, a group of these Puritans fled European oppression in 1620, bound for America, where they established the new world’s first recorded governance by a commonwealth — i.e., socialism.
However, despite Plymouth Colony’s three newly learned skills (how to grow corn, catch fish, gather nuts and berries) taught to them, believe it or not, by local English speaking Native Americans, by 1623 nearly half the colony’s population had died and it was barely producing enough food to survive. Plymouth Plantation Governor William Bradford described the situation:
The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.
At first it was an experiment, an innovation necessitated by a “starving time.” And little did these Puritan colonists realize at the outset of their decision to establish “private property” (the innovative convention that ultimately saved their individual and collective souls), that it would, 150 years later, fertilize seeds of independence in America with the recognition that everyone is endowed by their creator (i.e., an intrinsic natural order) with certain inalienable, individual human rights, including life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness.
As Benjamin Franklin cautioned, when asked what had been established at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, “a Republic, if you can keep it.” This curriculum is intended to teach us, and remind us, of the universal truth in our endeavors:
“In these Sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its Faults, if they are such; because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well administered; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years, and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”
With individual freedom and liberty comes individual responsibility — which is why, as George Bernard Shaw opined, “most men dread it.” But if we don’t consent to individuals choosing their path and, perhaps, failing from time to time while learning in the process, we will not succeed as a society.
Jay Eshelman is a former school board director and business owner living in Vermont.