What do the words racist, Nazi, fascist and rights have in common?
All three of them have lost all discernible meaning.
If you have the “wrong” opinion on healthcare, school lunch menus, or whether the M-5000 BlasterTank should be funded in next year’s military budget, you’re a racist. Those who wear uniforms and face-covering hoods, while demanding others repeat “correct think” phrases under threat of violence cluelessly call other people Nazis and fascists — and with a straight face. And rights? Anything coveted by more than one woke individual is now a “right.”
Here’s another pop quiz. What’s the primary purpose of government?
Listening to the nightly news and politicians’ bloviation, one might think it’s protecting its citizens from themselves. Perhaps the purpose of government is to provide for national security. Or maybe it’s providing a safe, stable, and level playing field for its citizens. Some believe government’s role is to provide for the national welfare, whatever that means.
Looking at our Founders’ view of government, the purpose is to protect the natural rights of those who elect to be governed.
There’s a lot to unpack in that phrase, and an accurate understanding of natural rights makes all the difference.
First, let’s explore the concept of natural rights. We need look no further than the Declaration of Independence for clarity.
“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.”
Natural rights exist because they are endowed to us by our Creator. They aren’t created and certainly not granted by government. Anything the government decides to give you can’t — by definition — be a right.
There’s another attribute to consider, one critical to a proper understanding of rights. A true natural right can’t infringe on the natural rights of another person. If enjoying my right infringes on your rights, it’s not a right at all.
The “healthcare for all” debate illustrates this concept. If free healthcare is a right for me, someone must pay for it, right? Under any practical model, funding my right would require the government to take money from you to pay for mine — a forcible imposition on your property and a violation of your rights. This is an oversimplified example to illustrate the point, but you get it, right?
Words matter, and the dilution of meaning of critically important terms like “rights” is a big deal. That’s why the Founders spent so much time and effort establishing the meaning of natural rights when drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
It’s far too easy for a false notion of compassion to creep into our discussion of natural rights. If we deem something as good and beneficial to society, like free healthcare or a “right” to good housing, calling those things “rights” is a natural, but misguided, next step. Is compassion really casting a vote to have the government take money from one person only to give it to another? No, true compassion is reaching into your own wallet — voluntarily — to help another, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Second, we need to consider the concept of natural rights when related to the primary role of government. It’s important to note that the Constitution grants nothing to people. It doesn’t, and can’t, grant rights because we the people already own those free and clear. As the Declaration of Independence so eloquently states…
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
“To secure these rights…” says it all. Word choice matters and we can note the phrase doesn’t say “grant these rights” or anything remotely similar. Secure, protect, guarantee; all are concepts supporting the notion natural rights already exist and predate the formation of government, so government can’t — again by definition — be in the rights manufacturing business.
The anchor of this phrase is equally important. Governments are created and only have power voluntarily granted to them via the consent of the governed. We the people choose to cede some of the rights we already own to the government we created to collectively protect our natural rights.
A simple way to understand this concept lies in how we chose to protect the most fundamental right to life itself. Since the right to life is granted by our Creator, it’s logical to assume my family is free and clear to punish someone who deliberately takes my life. So yes, we could choose to form a society where individuals assumed responsibility for punishment of offenders who violate others’ right to life. Alternatively, we could voluntarily form a government, which might more efficiently and fairly deal with said offenders. While imperfect, our legal and penal system does this now. We have voluntarily given up our claim to the enforce our right to life to the government. We can’t take revenge or punish violators individually because we, as a people, have decided to cede that power to the government.
Words matter. Wars have been started over lack of clarity of written and spoken language. The meaning of “rights” is fundamental to understanding of the Constitution — the guidebook to this great country. Let’s be careful about how we discuss rights in the national dialogue.
Tom McHale is the Director of Public Policy and Digital Media for the American Constitutional Rights Union. He is a magazine editor and writer by trade, having published thousands of articles and seven books including The Practical Guide to the United States Constitution.