Rights and Roe: How the Political Classes Have Destroyed the Declaration of Independence
While I watched very little of the Democratic National Convention, I did observe a ceremony to kick off one evening's activities: a television actor, along with some children, read from the Declaration of Independence. The audience, of course, cheered the event. However, if the Democratic delegates had actually understood the implications of what they were hearing, most likely they would have booed those folks off the stage as viciously as they booed the Boy Scouts who also participated on stage in another ceremony.
To understand what is behind the US Constitution, one must understand the Declaration of Independence, and to understand the Declaration, one must understand what the founders of this nation believed to be the origin of rights. From the few speeches I heard from the Democrats in Los Angeles, it is absolutely clear that those folks know less about the origin of rights than a four-year-old child knows the source of babies.
The tip-off to the Democrats' cluelessness came when Al Gore declared (once again, ad nauseum) that his government would do everything possible to continue the world's most liberal laws on abortion, and the audience burst into its loudest applause. The 1973 "landmark" Roe versus Wade decision, in which the US Supreme Court "discovered" that the Constitution guarantees every woman an almost unlimited "right" to abortion, is probably the holiest of all Democratic doctrines. That politicians of both parties believe the Constitution actually holds that women have the "right" to an abortion tells us they don't know much about rights.
Yet, the actor and his young companions were reading from Thomas Jefferson's famous document that declares that the "Creator" bestows rights upon individuals. Furthermore, Jefferson declared, the role of government is to protect those rights that we already own. Apparently, not one person sitting in the audience that night realized that nearly everything they were cheering in the political harangues that came upon them is absolutely opposed to Jefferson's words.
If one were to ask Americans who bestows their rights upon them, most would answer "the government." I have no doubt that most of the Democrats (and many of the Republicans) assembled in the convention halls would say the same thing. The people of the United States of America have enjoyed relative freedom for more than two centuries, they seem to believe, because of the magnanimity of the state.
To further deconstruct this observation, I turn again to Roe v. Wade. If the Democrats say that they actually "believe" the Declaration of Independence, then they must hold to the proposition that individuals own rights bestowed upon them by their creator, or more specifically, God (the God of Judaism and Christianity, to be even more specific). Furthermore, one can easily surmise that the framers of the Constitution were guided by Jefferson's principles when they constructed the Bill of Rights.
As numerous constitutional scholars have pointed out, the Bill of Rights was not an enumeration of a few privileges that government generously gives them. Instead, the Bill managed to cover nearly every imaginable intrusion into the rights of individuals by government. For example, the First Amendment assures people that the central government could not interfere with their religious beliefs. There was no "compelling government interest" that the modern federal courts have found that limit legitimate religious practices.
The framers also understood that a tyrannical state would soon seek to disarm its citizens, hence the Second Amendment. The Third, Fourth, and Fifth amendments specifically forbid the state from violating the private property rights of individuals. Furthermore, in the Ninth and Tenth amendments, the framers made it clear that the central government was greatly limited in its dealings with state governments and the citizens of those states. In other words, the framers understood rights from a "negative" concept. Individuals already own those rights; government is obligated to protect those rights, not to take them away or create new "rights" to replace the old ones.
If one believes that Roe v. Wade is constitutional in any historical sense, then one is left in a real dilemma. If rights as outlined by the framers come from God, then God also gives the "right" to an abortion. Since we have already identified the God who the framers had in mind, for abortion to be from God, it would be clear to those who worship God that abortion was something that pleases God.
However, if one examines both historical Judaism and Christianity, opposition to abortion has been a central doctrine of both religions since their foundation. While nothing on abortion per se appears in the Old and New Testaments, numerous other ancient writings from Jews and Christians have made it plain that they considered it to be a terrible sin. Opposition to abortion by Christians and Jews is hardly new; rather, it is thousands of years old.
That leaves those who believe that the Constitution harbors a "right" to abortion to believe that rights flow either from government itself or from another source. For example, many libertarians who profess to be atheists believe that rights are natural to humanity. We have rights because we have rights.
Others turn to utilitarian arguments. Nat Hentoff, a civil libertarian who is also an atheist, believes that abortion is wrong because it takes a human life. While there is nothing sacred per se in human life, according to Hentoff, taking innocent life is still a bad thing because he believes it to be bad for society.
Although one can admire Hentoff's stand, however, his arguments are incomplete. There is nothing inherent in utilitarianism that says that killing people is bad. Furthermore, one cannot hold to what Hentoff and other utilitarians believe and also endorse the Declaration of Independence.
People who believe that rights simply come from government have an even more difficult intellectual road ahead of them. First, if government both defines and distributes rights, what is to keep the state from abusing its citizens? We have seen such a scenario repeatedly as communist dictators imprisoned, killed, and tortured people for expressing the slightest disagreement with the state. At the same time, however, those same dictators were successfully appealing to western intellectuals on the basis that their governments were "caring for the poor" by providing them with essential services.
Second, those who hold to this point of view cannot simultaneously hold to the Declaration of Independence. That is why President Clinton's recent awarding of the Medal of Freedom to John Kenneth Galbraith was an obscenity. Galbraith has made a career of promoting some of the most murderous, freedom-hating regimes in history. It is clear that Galbraith — and others like him — believe that government is the true author of liberty.
In short, the political classes that tell us that our freedom is based upon "our form of government" are either ignorant or devious. I believe it is the latter. For more than a century, Americans have been fed statist propaganda that has undermined real freedom. In the end, we are left with the ridiculous picture of clueless political delegates cheering the reading of a document that in their hearts they truly despise.
August 28, 2000
William L. Anderson, Ph.D., is assistant professor of economics at North Greenville College in Tigerville, South Carolina. He is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.