President Obama’s negative rights
by Jeff Van Wickler
In the past, President Obama has spoken about the Constitution as a charter of negative rights.
The President was, and presumably still is, bothered that the Constitution speaks to what the government cannot do to you but does not address what the government must do on your behalf.
Well, first of all, that’s not quite true. The preamble outlines positive attributes quite nicely when it asks government to provide justice, domestic tranquility, and a common defense.
However, the Founders believed government was, at best, a necessary evil. They were concerned that a national government not kept in check would destroy liberty. They were right. Despite the attempts by progressives to down play the ill effects of collectivist governments all over the globe, one needn’t look too far to see that when the central planners get together to organize society for us, liberty is the first thing on the chopping block.
The negative rights, to which the President refers, are there to stymie those who prefer planning over liberty. What the President is really miffed about is that the Bill of Rights constrains social engineers.
The problem of the Constitution standing in the way of progress is certainly nothing new to progressives. In 1944, President Roosevelt introduced his 2nd Bill of Rights. Save number 4, these could have been penned by Marx, Lenin, or Thomas Friedman…
- The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
- The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
- The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
- The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
- The right of every family to a decent home;
- The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
- The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
- The right to a good education.
But what’s wrong with this? Aren’t these all important? Import does not a right make.
To start with, rights cannot be rights if they infringe on someone else’s liberty. A right to a job demands that an employer hire. The right to a home demands the carpenter build. The right to food, that the farmer plant a crop and reserve a portion of his harvest for you. These are really called wants and needs.
In pushing for his new Bill of Rights, FDR said that the ‘political rights’ guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights had “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.”
However, Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out for us that using the left’s definition of equality has real consequences: “Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.”
The progressive response is that one can’t have real liberty without economic liberty (where everybody has the same amount of stuff). The problem there is that in order to make everyone economically equal the government must use force. de Tocqueville summed that one up quite nicely as well: “Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word, equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”
Think of it this way: Every want and need that progressives establish as a new right costs somebody something. Whether it’s a service or a product, someone has to pay for it.
As taxpayers, we used to work until March to pay the government’s bills. Now we work until May. Every day that government adds to our burden represents a little more liberty that our politicians are frittering away.