Fellow Weasel Watcher Greg, at Rhymes with Right, came up with a good poster likening every woman’s right to have a gun to a black woman’s right to sit anywhere she wants in the bus. That poster, combined with a discussion I had with some young ‘uns about the Bill of Rights got me thinking about the expression “Civil Rights,” which is something the Left bandies about freely.
Lately, the Left has taken to calling government control of American health care a Civil Right. We all know that’s wrong, but it’s worth understanding precisely why it’s wrong. I’m still trying to organize my thoughts here, so please bear with me as a waffle my way through this.
The beginning of any discussion of civil rights must be the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This single sentence is the “whereas” the precedes the Constitution. Without this acknowledgement of God-given human status and dignity, the explicitly listed Rights in the Bill of Rights are meaningless. These unalienable rights are the abstract predicates that justify a citizen’s more concrete “right” to have certain areas of functioning upon which the government cannot impinge. Unless we acknowledge that humans — all humans — are equal and deserving of Life, Liberty, and the ability to make their way in the world, all the other bulwarks against government overreach are meaningless.
Which gets us to the Bill of Rights. What exactly is it? I mean, we all know what’s in it, but I don’t think most people stop and think about what it is.
The Constitution is a contract between the People (acting through their state-elected representatives) and the government. Its sole purpose is to describe what form the federal government will take. It’s a rather dull document that’s given over to defining the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch, and then apportioning power and responsibilities between the three of them.
The main body of the Constitution has nothing to do with the People, and everything to do with defining a functioning government. Thus, while it seeks to make sure that the executive can’t overwhelm the legislature or that the courts can’t overwhelm the executive, there’s nothing in it about whether the government as a whole can overwhelm the citizens under its rule.
What the Founders realized in the wake of the Constitution’s ratification is that creating a government is not the same as protecting the People’s declared rights under that government. “Rights” aren’t things that the government gives people and that it can take away from people. Things that the government can “giveth and taketh away” are merely privileges. Rights, on the other hand, belong to the People outside of the government. Rights have nothing to do with government control over people, and everything to do with the People’s right to control government. They preexist the government and will continue to exist long after the government is gone. Rights are independent of government.
That rights are independent of government does not mean that the government cannot use its aggregated power to destroy those rights. That they are destructible, despite being unalienable, is what concerned the Founding generation and what led them to create the Bill of Rights.
The first ten amendments to the Constitution recognize that the rights described are fundamental rights that transcend government, but that a tyrannical government can nevertheless destroy these fundamental rights. Rather than assuming that a beneficent government will automatically protect these rights, the Founders erred on the side of caution and warned the government that it had (and has) no power to touch rights that exist in the People, irrespective of the government.
Combined, that extraordinary sentence in the Declaration of Independence and of the first ten amendments to the Constitution create a bright line of human inviolability into which government cannot intrude. For example, from the Declaration of Independence, we have a controlling principle that explains why, even though sitting in the front of the bus isn’t set out explicitly or even implicitly in the Bill of Rights, it is still a fundamental Right that is a necessary predicate to the Bill of Rights. Rights must be applied equally to all humankind, because humankind is created equally.
Freedom to speak, worship, and assemble are unalienable rights. The right to be armed, for whatever the heck reason you want, is an unalienable right. The right to have your home free from American troops in an unalienable right. The right to be protected from torture and coercion aimed at forcing you to convict yourself out of your own mouth is an unalienable right. The state has the right to execute you if a properly constituted trial finds you guilty of a capital crime, but you have the right to an execution that is neither cruel (death by torture) nor unusual (death by bizarre forms of torture). There are other unalienable rights.
Let me say again what these rights are: They are a bright line of human inviolability and power that the government, despite its concentrated strength (police forces, armies, taxing powers, etc.) cannot attack or abridge.
Once one understands the difference between Rights (which are unalienable) and privileges (which depend on the government we elect) we can see why it’s so ridiculous when the Left describes health care as a “civil right.” It’s not. True civil rights recognize that citizens and the government are adversaries: the government constantly attempts to impose itself on the citizens, and the citizens have as their bulwark the Declaration and the Bill of Rights to protect them from this government overreach. Good health is not a matter of government overreach — except, of course, when the government uses health as a means of undermining the Bill of Rights.
This then, is the problem with ObamaCare: Rather than upholding a civil right, it is created to undermine people’s civil rights. Its death panels contravene the unalienable right to Life. Its abortion and contraception mandates directly impinge upon the unalienable right to freedom of worship. It’s proposed requirements that doctors ask prying questions about guns infringes upon the unalienable right to keep and bear arms. And Justice Roberts’ decision to the contract, its penalties for inaction are a direct infringement to people’s liberty.
As I said, this is a work in progress, so I don’t have a rousing or neat conclusion. I’m not even sure what to do with these thoughts, but I did want to get them down while they were still swirling in my head. Please feel free to add to or refine upon what I’ve written.