Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Provenance of Rights

There is little wonder that the argument over civil liberties and justice in this nation is incoherent; people argue the constitution without ever having read that document before declaiming their opinions on its content. In a comment thread at Ian Welsh’s place, someone made this statement.

Rights are not given by the government. They are inherent. They are ours before the notion of government even comes into it. They are, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “unalienable.”

Yes, of course I know governments shit on rights all the time. I get it. But government doesn’t grant rights. Rights are not that which are granted, they are that which can’t be taken away — unless we let them. And there’s a lot of letting going on.

The Declaration of Independence is not a governing document for this nation, and so anything it has to say has nothing to do with what our government may or may not do. Our governing document is the constitution and, more specific to this discussion, its Bill of Rights. If you read that document you will see that it specifically does grant some rights while, as the commenter suggests, it merely assures others.

When it says that the “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not infringed,” it is not giving citizens the right to bear arms, which is the point the commenter makes, it is accepting that there is an inherent right to do so and dictates that the government may not interfere with that right.

When the constitution says, on the other hand, that “the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial,” it is giving that right specifically and not merely guaranteeing a previously existing right. How, in fact, could the right to a trial be “natural and inherent” when the trial process itself is a construct of government?

The whole argument about what creates the rights which people enjoy is an exercise in mental masturbation, in that it feels good but does not accomplish the intended purpose of the organ which one is using. More important is the commenter’s second point, that being that governments can take away rights, including those rights which they did not grant to begin with.

While we are busy arguing about who has too much money, we have a president who has declared the power to void that part of our constitution which reads that no person may be “deprived of life without due process of law,” because on mere secret presidential direction an American citizen may be summarily executed.

We need to be less concerned with provenance of our rights, and more concerned with where our rights are going.

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