The central achievement of the American Revolution was to demote government to the role of a cop on the beat. The citizen became sovereign instead of the monarch. Self-government became an aspiration for all people, not just for rulers.
The idea became prominent, at least for a while, that government’s proper role was to secure the natural rights of the citizenry. There was nothing about a “nanny” or regulatory state. John Locke, who identified the most principled version of the classical liberal conception of government, argued that because in “the state of nature”—that is, prior to civilized society—some people may have posed a serious threat others, a system of laws was needed to mark everyone’s sphere of authority: a region within which one would be in full charge and which others must respect, not trespass upon.
One’s life was seen as the beginning of this sphere; one’s liberty followed, as did one’s private property. What a government was needed for was to keep those boundaries safe—to secure the rights to life, liberty, property, and whatever derives from these. And today that remains the point of government—nothing else. It is a vital function, because without it criminal conduct would likely go unchecked. But like referees at a sporting event, government isn’t meant to get involved in the game—it should just make sure that it goes on peacefully with everyone’s sovereignty secured.
This view of government was, of course, radical to the core. Instead of past centuries’ top-down rule by some king or tsar or gang, everyone was supposed to rule oneself and his or her own dominion. The vision was that all interactions among people would in time be voluntary and peaceful. From this arrangement would emerge a productive, creative, free community, not a hive or colony as with bees or termites.
That is what is individualist about the American system; namely, a country is to serve the objectives of a great variety of unique citizens and that no particular way of living is to be imposed on all by a ruler. Government is to serve the citizenry, not the other way around. And contrary to some thinking on the topic, we are not “all in it together,” as in North Korea and other collectivist political communities. Instead of being a sphere for just one kind of life dictated by a ruler, America is meant to be a sphere that contains an immense variety of different lives—coexisting peacefully, competing and cooperating, not marching to the same tune.
The details of the American order would naturally be complicated and diverse, but one idea always lay at the center of it all: None may violate the basic principles on which such a system rests, the basic rights of every individual. The only role for force is in defense and retaliation. No one may initiate force with impunity, not even to achieve a leader’s noble goals.
That is the American political alternative, the American political tradition—not the collectivist ideal pursued by some political thinkers and “leaders.”