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An open letter to the people of Afghanistan

By C. Bradley Thompson
web posted December 22, 2003

On December 15, 1791, 212 years ago, the American Bill of Rights was ratified. Thus ended a long and difficult process by which the American people first liberated themselves from tyranny and then established the first government in history founded on individual rights protected by a written constitution. Now you, the Afghan people, liberated from the despotism of the Taliban, must assume the daunting task of framing a constitution, instituting a new government, and rebuilding civil society. The challenges that confront you are formidable.

Modern history teaches that constitutions are easy to write. Over the course of the last 200 years, almost every nation in the world, including communist dictatorships and Islamic theocracies, has drafted a constitution. The sad reality, however, is that few have brought freedom.

The particular difficulties that you face in establishing a new constitution are enormous. If you are to have any chance at creating a prosperous, just and free Afghan future, you must confront and overcome your own history. This means two things. First, you must face directly the uncomfortable fact that you have no useable tradition of self- government. Yours is a nation long governed by traditions of fascist-like political rulers, medieval forms of tribal and ethnic justice, and warring religions that are hostile to freedom. Second, you must reject the political anarchy of your ethnic chieftains and the religious tyranny of your Islamic mullahs. In a free Afghan society, neither tribe nor mosque must be able to gain governmental power.

More important, you must discover and accept the moral preconditions of a free society. Afghanistan's political, social, and economic reconstruction will require an ideological reconstruction. Bad ideas destroyed your society and only good ones can save it.

Once freed from the political grip of the twin evils of ethnic collectivism and religious oppression, it is imperative that you import and accept the ideas of the Western Enlightenment. Philosophers such as John Locke and America's founding statesmen discovered the moral foundations and the political institutions necessary to establish a free and just society. You must begin, as we did in our revolution, by recognizing the moral sovereignty of the individual. A free society recognizes that each and every man is capable of rational self-government in the fullest sense. You must enshrine as inalienable the rights of all men and women to their lives, liberty, and property.

Through our revolutionary experience, we learned that the protection of man's individual rights is the only legitimate function of government. This means that you must design a government limited to making and enforcing objective laws of social conduct. This is no easy task.

According to James Madison, the father of our constitution, the great problem in framing a government that is to be administered by men over men is this: "You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself." The genius of America's founding fathers was to have discovered a solution to this perennial problem--i.e., the idea of a written constitution as fundamental law. Men such as John Adams and James Madison learned through experience that a written constitution must stand above government as a higher law that creates, defines, and limits the powers of government. Politically, your supreme law must be the constitution and not the Koran or sharia law. Otherwise, your constitution will be little more than a "parchment barrier" against the encroachments of power-lusting mullahs.

In order to elevate the rule of law over the rule of men, America's founding statesmen designed a constitutional system that curbed power in two important ways. First, they limited the role of government to making and enforcing laws that define crimes and punishments objectively, resolve civil disputes between individuals, and enforce the sanctity of contracts. These functions serve to protect the rights of the individual from the arbitrary power of other men. Second, they built into our constitution several crucial principles, procedures, and institutions that are necessary barriers to the concentration and abuse of political power: e.g., separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism. These mechanisms serve to protect the rights of the individual from the arbitrary use of government power.

In addition to these general principles of constitutional construction, Afghanistan's founding fathers should add a double security to the freedom of the Afghan people by explicitly identifying and protecting individual rights in two crucial areas: freedom of thought and freedom of production and trade. The Afghan state must be barred from interfering in the intellectual and moral lives of its citizens, and it must not attempt to regulate wealth creation or redistribute the fruits of a man's labor. In other words, there must be a strict separation of mosque and state, as well as a strict separation between the economy and the state.

In stark contrast to your Arab and Persian neighbors, you have a unique opportunity to liberate yourself from the darkness of your past. The United States of America has freed you from the tyranny of a brutal and wicked regime, but its greatest and most enduring gift is contained in two old and musty documents written more than two hundred years ago- -the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It is here that you will find the true meaning of freedom.

C. Bradley Thompson is the author of John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty, and a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Copyright © 2003 Ayn Rand® Institute

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