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The Foundation of Our Rights

By Larry P. Arnn

{Published in the July 4, 1997 edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review as one of a series of articles on the Bill of Rights, called "We The People..."}

In our country the term "right" is a powerful thing. If something is a right, then it is the whole purpose of our country--of any decent country--to protect it. In that case, the definition of rights matters very much. To help us understand the foundation of our rights, we should consider what is said in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

According to Americas Founders, a right is a claim that a person may rightfully make against someone who would deprive him of what is his own. If you own something, like your car, then you have a right to it. If someone takes it from you, then you have a legitimate claim against that person. He owes you back your car; he has a duty to give it back--or rather not to take it from you in the first place.

A "natural right" doesnt have to be acquired, like buying a car. You own it by birth, by your nature as a human being. Natural rights belong to all people, in all times and places. Whenever they are taken from us, we are deprived of something that is naturally our own, something that cannot belong to another.

The Declaration of Independence says, "To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men . . ." Three rights are named specifically: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Life and liberty belong to us at birth because every person is born free, and he remains free unless someone deprives him of that freedom. A person may only rightfully be deprived of his life or liberty if he neglects his duty to recognize the rights of others. A criminal who steals or kills may justly be deprived of his liberty, or even his life.

The Declaration also speaks of a right to the "pursuit of happiness." No one can have a right to happiness itself. Happiness is an achievement. It encompasses the right to acquire property. Both happiness and property-ownership depend upon our efforts and work. They depend, sometimes, upon good fortune. If we expect to keep our liberty, we must pursue the fulfillment of these rights ourselves. Government cannot give us happiness. It can give us property, but only by taking it from someone else.

The Declaration says that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are "among" our natural rights. We have others. Among the most important of these are the rights of conscience, including freedom of religion, speech and press. These appear in the Constitution as the "Bill of Rights"--the first ten amendments. These are specific rights, preventing specific abuses of government power with which the Founders had become familiar through study or direct experience.

Before the Constitution was ratified, every state governed itself through elected representatives. A national Congress was elected by the state legislatures. But governments were not protecting equal rights. The rights of property--sometimes even life and liberty--were being violated by the state governments. For example, state legislatures routinely overturned court decisions in order to give special treatment to individuals. They failed to enforce contracts. Many also sided with debtors against lenders by printing worthless currency.

The protections outlined in the Bill of Rights were, in part, a response to these abuses. They are specific or "positive" rights because they are made by a positive act of human beings. We recognize these rights because we perceive them necessary to the preservation of our natural rights.

This can be seen most clearly in the Ninth Amendment: "The Enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." Today, we do not hear much about the Ninth Amendment. That is because many judges and people in government have forgotten that we have rights which are not granted by government, but only protected by government. Government cannot take them away.

Today, government again infringes on our rights. It discriminates between people according to their race. It deprives us of our property through zealous environmental regulation. It abridges speech through campaign finance laws, broadcast licensing, and bizarre definitions of "discrimination" and "harassment." To reclaim our rights we do not need to amend the Constitution. The Bill of Rights is sufficient as it is. It simply needs to be enforced.

For that to happen we must properly understand the foundation of the Bill of Rights. We must understand that the positive rights of the Constitution are designed to protect our natural rights, as proclaimed in the Declaration--those rights that belong to us by our nature as free and equal human beings.

Larry P. Arnn is President of the Claremont Institute. Return to top.

All pages copyright © 1997 The Claremont Institute