An Essential Difference in Understanding of Rights


This morning, I specified that many of the Obama Administration’s affronts against our civil rights have been against our right to a constitutional process for enacting and executing the laws under which we live.  Constitutional law professor John McGinnis notes President Obama’s curious priorities for rights while speaking at a naturalization ceremony:

Significantly, in fact, his speech dwells on only two rights: the right to criticize the government and the right to vote. These are quintessentially the rights of political action. For President Obama, these are the rights that help us make continual progress, that these documents have “inspired” as he puts it. Under the President’s view, what is central to America is not a set of rights beyond ordinary politics, but the power of ordinary politics at the federal level to transform the nation even without a constitutional amendment. It is a classic formulation of Progressivism—a creed that does not see the Constitution as the anchor for a fixed set of liberties protected through its system of checks and balances.

The importance of the point cannot be overstated:  The value of our intrinsic rights is not, primarily, that they give us a framework in which to use government to change society, but rather, that we are able to exercise them generally without reference to government.  Contra Obama’s worldview, government is not just what we call things we do together.  That is, government is not our reason for living as a community.

McGinnis highlights the fact that Obama didn’t mention any of the documents to which Americans are to be “loyal.” If the president had highlighted, say, the Declaration of Independence, he might have inadvertently brought attention to the assertion that the purpose of government is to secure rights, not to give them an arena in which to be exercised.

While working out and doing dishes and such, I’ve been watching Ken Burns’s The West on Netflix, and although there have been hints of the Howard Zinn approach to history as the story of people who have been wronged, one repeated theme has been striking:  Particularly for native Americans, the U.S. government was at the core of the systemic wrongs.  In order to impose a framework by which the United States could edge into the territory, officials pushed tribes to define themselves under structures that didn’t necessarily match their practice.

To some extent, the tribes operated under a more primitive formulation of government, but the intersection of the two societies was revealing.  At points, the U.S. government was no more civilized, by which I’m not referring to war and barbarism, but to process.  U.S. officials would impose a notion of property rights and pressure tribes for contracts, but then behave as if all tribes constituted a collective nation or ignore promises of other U.S. officials when they were inconvenient.

In structure, the approach was not unlike that of labor union organization:  If a majority of people who happen to be grouped together by occupation or (in the natives’ case) by broad racial category vote to abide by certain rules or impose certain rules on each other, then the rules bind even those who want nothing to do with it.  In the progressive view, there’s no opting out.

How differently things might have developed had the government (consistently) started with the inalienable rights of the natives and presented a federalist path for them to avail themselves of the government as mere security.  Conflict would not have been avoided as the many cultures collided in the New World, that much is certain, but the results might have been more just.

Barack Obama and his ilk adorn themselves in their opposition to imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, and racism, but they view government and rights in exactly the way of imperialists, colonialists, nationalists, and racists.  In their view, government is a means for groups that take over the levers of power to take things from other groups and to impose their worldview on them.  They are the true sons and daughters of history’s injustices.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    Clear thinking on governance has become difficult for Americans. We find ourselves awash in rules and regulations, the origin of which frequently cannot be fathomed. Rights are not clearly understood and seem to be at the whim of the government. Unpopular, but clear is the right protected, but not created, by the Second Amendment. So why is it possible that various police chiefs can establish standards for the free exercise of the right to keep and bear arms. This certainly makes it appear that this is a “right” granted by the government. How is it that the “right” of private property has been overwhelmed by Zoning Boards, Planning Boards and agents, the EPA, Army Corps, etc. If so many permissions must be obtained, is private property still a “right”? Perhaps the idea that the governed grant rights to the governors does not occur until face to face with it. A citizen without a gun has no idea of the requirements to own one, a purchaser of a home in a new subdivision has no idea of the permits required for that house to exist. Of course, if they want to add a deck the become aware rather rapidly. I remember being a kid and needing a note from my mother to buy .22 ammunition at the hardware store. This was not adherence to any law, just common sense applied to a 13 year old. But was it “constitutional”? Can hardware stores still sell .22’s? Drivers licenses are probably a privilege, not a right. But we freely hand weapons to 16 year olds.

    • ShannonEntropy

      Can hardware stores still sell .22’s?

      The last time I was in Ace Hardware they weren’t selling firearms or ammo

      … but back in the day i.e. ’60s I bought my first firearm ever at a K-Mart “blue light special” in Ohio. I was 16 yrs old. Still have it … it is less than 15 ft from where I am typing this … an H&R break-action 12 gauge shotgun