A Fourth of July channeling of Thomas Jefferson

The Week

As we celebrate our nation's 236th birthday, let's assess how the author of the Declaration of Independence might judge how we've executed his mission

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Thomas Jefferson's glorious sentence from his Declaration of Independence — arguably the most influential sentence in the history of the English language — holds true to this day, and remains a beacon to all who cherish or yearn for the human rights he espoused. Abraham Lincoln considered that specific passage one of the most important things he ever read, and regarded it as the bedrock of his political philosophy.

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Jefferson believed that the Declaration was his greatest accomplishment — even more so than being president of the United States. In fact, gaze upon his gravestone at Monticello (appropriately adorned with nickels left by visitors), and you wouldn't even know that he was president:

"Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, Father of the University of Virginia."

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Reports that suggest America is slipping would unquestionably leave Jefferson with a growing sense of alarm.

"Because by these," Jefferson explained, "as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered." He needn't worry.

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In any case, here we are, 236 years after Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. To what degree do we modern Americans live up to his lofty ideals of freedom and democracy?  

On the whole, pretty well. But there are warning signs and much room for improvement. At least that's according to a handful of organizations that rank global freedom:

The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index — which bases its ratings on civil liberties, conduct of elections, media freedom, public opinion, functioning government, corruption, and stability — ranks the United States the world's 19th best democracy, down from 17th in 2010. It says:

 "U.S. democracy has been adversely affected by a deepening of the polarization of the political scene and political brinkmanship and paralysis. ...

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The U.S… remain(s) at the bottom end of the full democracy category. There has been a rise in protest movement. Problems in the functioning of government are more prominent."

Specifically, on a scale of 1-10, we get a 9.17 for our electoral process and pluralism, 8.53 for civil liberties, 8.13 for political culture, 7.50 for functioning government, and 7.22 for political participation. Room for improvement, indeed.  

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Want to live in a more democratic country? Head to Scandinavia, the Index says. Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden top the list. Or head down under, as New Zealand and Australia come in at numbers five and six, respectively.

The Index of Economic Freedom, published annually by The Wall Street Journal and the conservative Heritage Foundation, also shows some erosion. On a scale of 1-100 (100 is most free), the United States gets a 76.3. That's down from 77.8 in 2011, and 81 in 2008, but it still puts the U.S. in the top 10 most economically free countries. Here's how Heritage and the Journal break the data down, and how it compares with 2011:

Rule of law

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·      Property rights: 85.0 (no change)

·      Freedom from corruption: 71.0 (worsened)

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Limited government

·      Government spending: 46.7 (worsened)

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·      Fiscal freedom: 69.8 (improved)

Regulatory efficiency

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·      Business freedom: 91.1 (improved)

·      Labor freedom: 95.8 (improved)

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·      Monetary freedom: 77.2 (worsened)

Open Markets

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·      Trade freedom: 86.4 (no change)

·      Investment freedom: 70.0 (worsened)

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·      Financial freedom: 70.0 (no change)

Heritage and the Journal blast what they call "government intervention," regulations, growing spending at all levels of government, and growing uncertainty in the private sector, and also warn of "fading confidence in the government's determination to promote or even sustain open markets." 

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Meantime, what of one of Jefferson's most cherished freedoms: That of the press? "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter" he famously said.

Alas, on this point, the U.S. has fallen sharply. Reporters Without Borders, in its annual Press-Freedom Index, says America has plunged to 47th in the world, down from 20th a year ago. It blames the crackdown and repression of journalists covering the ongoing Occupy movement around the country. Where are press freedoms greatest? Again, try Scandinavia: Finland and Norway top the list.

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These reports that suggest America is slipping would unquestionably leave Jefferson with a growing sense of alarm. And what of the widening class divide in our country? Were he alive today, Jefferson might look at the 1 percent vs. the 99ers and wonder whether all men, in fact, really are created equal.

As we pursue our own happiness today, it's important to remember how perishable the freedoms we often seem to take for granted really are. "The natural progress of things," Jefferson observed, "is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground."

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