The American Declaration of Independence famously affirmed that “All men . . . are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Our nation’s government rests upon this principle of the dignity of human individuals: merely by existing as a human being, each of us possesses inherent value. Without this affirmation of human value, government devolves into tyranny: why shouldn’t a person in power mistreat his fellow men, unless his fellow men have some fundamental worth? However, the Founders’ understanding of human rights has since eroded in American thought, and modern misunderstandings of rights now threaten destruction to American freedoms. To guard our heritage of liberty, we must reaffirm two major principles of human rights, largely lost by modern America.
Firstly, the Founders limited the power of the new American government based on their collective understanding of rights, as can be seen in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law. . . .” While the Founders held differing ideas on the precise boundaries of human rights, they agreed that these rights restricted rather than enlarged the role of government. The Constitution tasked government with defending people’s rights when threatened, not with establishing them in the first place, and deliberately forbade government intervention in many spheres of society.
Today, however, the common usage of the word “rights” has changed dramatically. Rather than using human rights to limit government, many citizens call out to government to provide them with a long list of “rights”. A right to health care, which the Founders would not have recognized, provided the thrust behind Obama’s Universal Health Care initiative. The Founders would indeed have affirmed an individual’s freedom to seek out quality health care, but would have placed the responsibility to pay for it on the individual himself, or perhaps on private charity. Benefits such as paid holidays and secondary education, the privileges of a few generations ago, now appear in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many citizens now see government as a vehicle for handing out goods such as college degrees. Earlier Americans would have expected nothing more from their government than standing aside and letting them pursue such goals voluntarily.
Once this philosophy takes over a population, what can stop them from simply voting ever-lengthening lists of “rights” to themselves? Such a system cannot sustain itself. Government bureaucracies expand rapidly, struggling to cater to the demands of citizens whose new rights are supposedly being violated. The central idea of human dignity, the foundation of all legitimate rights, becomes lost in the scramble. By taking government handouts rather than working responsibly to better themselves, citizens sacrifice their own dignity and freedom. In essence, they become sheep, dependent on a massive welfare state and unable to care for themselves.
Another idea key to the Founder’s idea of rights has also eroded in modern America: the principle of human duties corresponding to human rights. Russell Kirk stated this succinctly in his Faculty Statement on Academic Freedom at Hillsdale College (available here on the blog of Hillsdale Professor Bradley Birzer). Along with rights and dignity, we receive a fundamental responsibility to use our freedoms and abilities well. For society to survive, the only alternative to coercive, far-reaching government is self-government. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, a leading Anglo-Irish statesman of the late 1700s who supported American rights, every man has certain duties to his fellow men, existing prior to any voluntary contracts or body of civil law. Americans today raise legitimate concerns about our overreaching government, but at the same time we must look honestly in the mirror and commit to using well the freedoms which we do have.
Here, in conclusion, we find two principles of the American founding which the modern West has largely forgotten. Rights are meant to limit government power rather than lead government to offer us handouts, and rights always come with responsibilities. We need to focus on reaffirming these ideas in order to resist dependence on an inflated, unlimited government.