Thomas Jefferson’s Thoughts on Big Government and Big Tech

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Shelly Palmer 

We live in the age of exponentiation. Everything is evolving at an almost unimaginable speed. New tools, techniques, iterations, breakthroughs, and game-changing discoveries happen almost daily. Today, just staying on top of what’s happening is practically a full-time job. This raises a question: If free unencumbered commercial enterprises are struggling to keep up with the pace of change, what hope do governments have?

We’ve seen this question asked many times this year. Facebook, Google, and Twitter all testified before Congress about data privacy. The big telcos have been lobbying for favorable pathways to 5G. GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) went into effect, and American legislators are thinking about a version suitable for the United States. But all of this is symptomatic of a larger problem. We have evolved past our current business rules, regulations, and laws.

Our Founding Fathers were exceptionally smart, well-educated people with a common goal. Many of them were very deep thinkers. So, it should not surprise you that Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), the second vice president of the United States (1797–1801), and the third president of the United States (1801–1809), thought deeply about laws and institutions. Here’s an excerpt from a letter Jefferson wrote to Samuel Kercheval on July 12, 1816. I added the paragraph breaks to make it easier to read. The text in bold is carved into panel four of the Jefferson Memorial. He writes:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead.

I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

It is this preposterous idea which has lately deluged Europe in blood. Their monarchs, instead of wisely yielding to the gradual change of circumstances, of favoring progressive accommodation to progressive improvement, have clung to old abuses, entrenched themselves behind steady habits, and obliged their subjects to seek through blood and violence rash and ruinous innovations, which, had they been referred to the peaceful deliberations and collected wisdom of the nation, would have been put into acceptable and salutary forms.

Let us follow no such examples, nor weakly believe that one generation is not as capable as another of taking care of itself, and of ordering its own affairs. Let us, as our sister States have done, avail ourselves of our reason and experience, to correct the crude essays of our first and unexperienced, although wise, virtuous, and well-meaning councils. And lastly, let us provide in our constitution for its revision at stated periods. What these periods should be, nature herself indicates. By the European tables of mortality, of the adults living at any one moment of time, a majority will be dead in about nineteen years. At the end of that period, then, a new majority is come into place; or, in other words, a new generation.

Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. It has then, like them, a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness; consequently, to accommodate to the circumstances in which it finds itself, that received from its predecessors; and it is for the peace and good of mankind, that a solemn opportunity of doing this every nineteen or twenty years, should be provided by the constitution; so that it may be handed on, with periodical repairs, from generation to generation, to the end of time, if anything human can so long endure.

Jefferson’s words are still prescient and profound 202 years on. It is time for smart, well-educated people to debate the scientific and technological issues facing the United States (and the rest of the world) and then empower our government to act in the best interest of the people. We can start with climate change and AI. Proper strategies to deal with both of these by-products of human innovation and technological progress will go a long way toward solving most, if not all, of our other issues.

This Can Never Happen

Yes, it can! First, become well educated on climate change, on AI, or on both of those subjects. Commit to the practice of lifelong learning and advocate to your inner circle – the people you influence the most. Empower them to do the same. Social media will do the rest.

I don’t have the answers to the problems of climate change or how to regulate or control the advent of AI, but Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts make me optimistic about our potential to come together for our common good. If we don’t, we won’t be doomed to remain ever under the regimen of our barbarous ancestors … we won’t be here at all.

Author’s note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.