Constitutional Rights?

One of the phrases that I’m trying to purge from my vocabulary is the phrase “constitutional right.” You hear a lot of people talk about their own “constitutional rights.” The problem with this type of talk is that, in a very important sense, there are no such things as constitutional rights. This type of speaking conditions people into wrongly thinking that their rights are somehow grounded in the Constitution and arise therefrom. This is a dangerous way to think. If it is the case that a right is grounded in the Constitution and arises therefrom, that right is as tenuous as the Constitution itself. Such rights can be dissolved as easily as the Constitution can be changed. In reality, our rights do not stem from the Constitution. Rather, rights are endowed by God. This is the truth that our founding fathers recognized that led them to begin this country. “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 phrase is probably the most familiar from our Declaration of Independence. It goes on to say “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” In other words, our rights as Americans, indeed, as human beings, are grounded in our Creator and are known by Natural Law (the subject, perhaps, of another blog). As such, they are real, objective, and immutable. Further, it is the duty of government to secure these rights. It is not government (or the Constitution) that grants these rights. So the next time someone mentions what they think is a constitutional right that they posssess, remind them that in fact those rights are endowed by God not government.

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3 comments on “Constitutional Rights?

  1. spicher says:

    Whether or not I agree with you, it’s your constitutional right to be able to express your opinion. on an serious note, people who say such things without thinking it through ought to be jenked on from time to time. I found this post to be insightful.

  2. Leroy says:

    Great post Richard. I too have been thinking about our “rights” as of late and I wanted to get your thoughts on my thoughts.

    First, the eminent economist Ludwig von Mises seems to disagree with the idea that all men are created with certain rights. In his book titled “The Anti-Capitalist Mentality,” he argues that the notion that all men are born with rights is a delusion. He writes, “Nature is not bountiful but stingy. It has restricted the supply of all things indispensable for the preservation of human life.” There is not an endless supply of resources to which all men can lay claim. Not all men have a right to food or to the same standard of living. What do you make of his remarks?

    Second, I have noticed that when some Christians speak of rights, they point out that, in relation to God, man has no rights. All that we have belongs to God and we are merely stewards of these resources. Therefore, they often conclude, we should have no problem having the government infringe on some of our rights seeing how we don’t really have rights anyway. To me, this argument confuses the categories of our rights in relation to God and our rights in relation to man. What do you think?

    L

  3. I think Mises is confusing rights with entitlements. A right is a negative constraint on others. Thus, my right to life forbids others from depriving me of my life. An entitlement obligates others. Thus, the entitlement to public education (as some maintain exists) means that others are obligated to provide that education. When he says that not all have a right to food, given my distinction between a right and an entitlement, Mises would be saying it is not the case that others could not forbid me food (or to say it without the negatives: Mises is saying that others could forbid me food). But this does not seem correct. Generally speaking, no one can deprive me of food. But it also is the case that no one is obligated to give me food (which would be the case if food was an entitlement).
    As for your second point about how some Christians think and talk, I think you are correct in that they seem to be confusing rights vis-a-vis other humans and rights vis-a-vis God. While I would agree that as humans we have no rights vis-a-vis God, it does not follow from this that I have no rights vis-a-vis other humans. So while I might not have a problem with God infringing (so to speak) on my rights, I can still have a great problem with government infringing on those rights, since government is not God.

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