by Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson
December 15 is Bill of Rights Day. This year is the 219th anniversary of the adoption of the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution—the Bill of Rights.
Few Americans notice Bill of Rights Day. That isn’t surprising, since we have done such a poor job of upholding and abiding by its provisions. (From my perspective, only the Third Amendment is completely intact, while the Seventh, Ninth, and 10th have been most completely ignored. Check them out for yourself.)
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Rather than debate individual amendments, let’s consider a more fundamental problem: We poorly understand the elementary concept of rights. Many Americans, both conservative and liberal, further cloud the issue by asserting that responsibilities frequently eclipse rights. We need a correct understanding of both rights and responsibilities.
To the founders, government’s sole legitimate purpose is to protect our rights. The Declaration of Independence specifies two essential points we need to understand about our rights:
- They are God-given;
- they are inalienable.
Divine authority is a stumbling block for some Americans, but it is the second point that is the immediate issue. That our basic rights are inalienable means, simply and unequivocally: No person or group of persons, including government, is justified (or authorized: see the Fifth Amendment) in trespassing upon anyone’s rights—that is, in taking life, liberty or property from another—except via due process of law as a penalty for having harmed or violated someone else’s life, liberty, or property. One person’s rights end where another person’s rights begin. Nobody’s rights trump anyone else’s.
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The clear understanding of our fundamental rights has eroded over the decades. The property right has suffered the greatest damage. Under the influence of progressive/socialist ideas, the traditional American negative right to NOT have somebody take one’s property has been corrupted and inverted into a positive premise. Now, people often claim a “right” to have certain things.
One of the most famous examples of this inverted concept of rights was President Franklin Roosevelt’s so-called “Economic Bill of Rights.” In 1944, FDR asserted that Americans had a “right to a useful and remunerative job,” “a decent home,” “adequate medical care,” “a good education,” etc.
Nobody objects to decent jobs, homes, health care, and education, but these good things can’t be “rights.” If one person has a legal right to have a home, then other people must be compelled to provide that home. That would violate those citizens’ rights to their own liberty and property. In other words, “rights” in FDR’s sense negates “rights” in the founders’ sense. (This is ironic, since it was FDR who instituted Bill of Rights Day in 1941.) Rights = no rights, a self-evident absurdity.
Critics assert that we have become too “rights-centered” and that we need to strike a balance between rights and responsibilities. This argument is inaccurate and misleading. First, our Republic has always been rights-centered—after all, we have a Bill of Rights, not a Bill of Responsibilities. Second, no mature adult denies that we have responsibilities. In fact, responsibilities are implicitly inherent in the rights-based vision of our founders.
Citizens have at least three primary responsibilities in our constitutional, rights-based order: First, to respect the rights of others (first, do no harm); second, to provide for self and dependents (since nobody has a right to anyone else’s property); third, to find a way to render something of economic value to others in the social division of labor as the means to be self-supporting.
But don’t we have a responsibility to help those who are in need? Yes, we who are in the Judeo-Christian tradition have a responsibility to extend charity to those who are incapable of helping themselves. This, however, is a moral responsibility, not a legal one. We are accountable to God, not to government, for our good works.
It makes no sense to say that those who work hard, are productive, and have savings, have a responsibility to provide for those who shirked that very same responsibility to provide for themselves. That position denies the premise that we all share the same responsibilities. It is to maintain that some competent adults have responsibilities and others don’t—analogous to the earlier point that spurious “rights” override the true rights of others.
The traditional American credo is that we all have equal rights and responsibilities. Progressives and other social engineers, by contrast, believe that government should decide whose “rights” and “responsibilities” receive privileged treatment. Which side of the fence are you on?
Hail to the Bill of Rights! May we always honor and uphold it.