Friday, October 31, 2008
A Primer on Rights
I suppose it was inevitable that people would one day begin expanding on the rights upon which the US Constitution is ostensibly based, going even beyond the Bill of Rights.
Today, for instance, we hear about the right to a fair wage. The absurdity of that one may be seen by restating it: the right to a fair wage is the right to have a certain value attached to your services. Well, who says? These kinds of "rights" are directly contrary to the notion of the free exchange of commerce, the essence of capitalism. Hence the right to a fair wage is really a stipulation that society must be in essence socialist. This begs the question who is going to be put in charge of determining what the value of services should be. If that value is not set by the marketplace, it must be imposed. This is contrary to freedom, which is the heart of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Hence one may find an extrapolation of the constitutional basis in rights which is contrary to that basis itself.
Speaking of the Declaration of Independence, we will do well to consider carefully the meaning of "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
In the first place, there is the fact that the basis of authority here is what is considered to be "self-evident," an appeal to common sense. This document is the product of the age of Rationalism, whose consistent appeal was to Reason. The American ideal was tempered by a lack of excess, and comparatively speaking the Revolution was conservative in nature. A salient difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution was that the latter took the ideas of liberty too far. The elimination of the nobility gave way to mob rule and the enthronement of the Goddess Reason and an unfettered mess. In America, by contrast, the need for the rule of law was seen as part of what was self-evident.
But in principle, any appeal to what is self-evident contains a seed of trouble, since what is self-evident to one generation may not be so self-evident to another.
And in fact, the phrase "among these rights" implies that there are more rights which are self-evident than life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Who's to say that the Bill of Rights must be the full range and extent of those rights?
Here's where the slippery slope upon which activist judges may base their rulings begins.
But what bears remembering is that the Declaration of Independence was written to tell the government what it had no right to do. This may be taken from the context in which it was written. The preamble was speaking first of all to the British monarchy, in effect saying, "We are not doing what is morally corrupt in our opposition to your throne; for we have from our creation as men as much intrinsic value and prerogatives as you; rather, it is you who are behaving immorally, in that you have denied us life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
The Declaration was in effect entering into the argument over establishmentarianism: was the throne established by God to dictate whatever it deemed legal, or not?
When this context is removed from questions over government, mischief arises.
Now rights may be applied to individuals over against other individuals, and consequently any notion of responsibility or of charity is left out of the discussion.
The fabric of life does not derive from the concept of rights. Only our obligations vis-a-vis the government may be argued to derive from it.
The fabric of life derives from God, to whom a brief nod is given in the Declaration; and what is in fact self-evident, though many choose to deny it, is that He has created life. We subsequently owe Him our existence. That is not a right; it is a debt.