February 24, 2017
Recently, Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen wrote in the Washington Post of “The most important phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance” — “with liberty and justice for all.”
Allen recognized that justice required “equality before the law” and that freedom exists “only when it is for everyone.” But she confused democracy — defined as progressives “build[ing] a distributed majority across the country, as is needed for electoral college victory” — with liberty, which is very different. Similarly, she replaced the traditional meaning of justice (“giving each his own,” according to Cicero) with a version of “social justice” inconsistent with it. And her two primary examples of rights — “rights” to education and health care — were inconsistent with both liberty for all and justice for all.
Americans cannot have both liberty and this type of social justice — under whose aegis one can assert rights to be provided education and health care, not to mention food, housing, etc. Positive rights to receive such things, absent an obligation to earn them, must violate others’ liberty, because a government must take citizens’ resources without their consent to fund them. Providing such government benefits for some forcibly violates others’ rights to themselves and their property.
The only justice that can be “for all” involves defending negative rights — prohibitions laid out against others, especially the government, to prevent unwanted intrusions — not rights to be given things. Further, only such justice can be reconciled with liberty “for all.” That is why negative rights are what the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, were intended to protect. But those foundational freedoms continue to be eroded by the ongoing search to invent ever-more positive rights.
Echoing John Locke, The Declaration of Independence asserts that all have unalienable rights, including liberty, and that government’s central purpose is to defend those negative rights. Each citizen can enjoy them without infringing on anyone else’s rights, because they impose on others only the obligation not to invade or interfere. But when the government creates new positive rights — which require extracting resources from others — these new “rights” violate others’ true unalienable rights. In other words, people recognize these positive rights as theft except when the government does it.
Almost all of Americans’ rights laid out in the Constitution are protections against government abuse. The preamble makes that clear, as does the enumeration of the limited powers granted to the federal government. That is reinforced by explicit descriptions of some powers not given, particularly in the Bill of Rights, whose negative rights Justice Hugo Black called the “Thou Shalt Nots.” Even the Bill of Rights’ central positive right — to a jury trial — is largely to defend innocent citizens’ negative rights against being railroaded by government. And the 9th and 10th Amendments leave no doubt that all rights not expressly delegated to the federal government (including health care and education) are retained by the states or the people.
Liberty means I rule myself, protected by my negative rights, and voluntary agreements are the means of resolving conflict. In contrast, assigning positive rights to others means someone else rules over the choices and resources taken from me. But since no one has the right to rob me, they cannot delegate such a right to the government to force me to provide resources it wishes to give to others, even if by majority vote. For our government to remain within its delegated authority, reflecting the consent of the governed expressed in “the highest law of the land,” it can only enforce negative rights.
Our country was founded on unalienable rights, not rights granted by Washington. That means government has no legitimate power to take them away. However, as people have discovered ever-more things they want others to pay for, and manipulated the language of rights to create popular support, our government has increasingly turned to violating the rights it was instituted to defend. And there is no way to square such coercive “social justice” with “liberty and justice for all.”
In our current society there are a multitude of systems of oppression, privilege, and power that cause disparities and differences amongst people. I want everyone to experience the opportunities that will best help them fulfill their goals and dreams. No one should be discriminated against because of who they are in terms of race, sexual orientation, gender, or otherwise and they should not be denied access to support. For me, social justice is about educating people to our equality and making an effort to work together. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the role of government to bring about change but it is explicitly written in our Constitution that we preserve these protections. One of the biggest parts of social justice is being aware of local and global issues; being involved in your community is a great way to learn about these issues and be able to create awareness. Instead of begging the government to attempt to give some certain advantages while making other foot the bill, we need to individually become change agents in our every day interactions with each other. This shouldn’t be this complicated.
Trust is what lets you enter into relationships with friends, lovers and business partners. It’s what lets you walk down the street and go to farmers markets, concerts and sporting events, knowing that you’ll be safe among strangers. You’ll be fine.
Trust is also part of what lets a democracy function. Trust in democratic institutions, formal and informal — the integrity of the vote, the balance of power, the role of serious journalism, etc. People have separated on tribal grounds, with strong social, cultural and partisan identities, and they tend to believe what they hear from their own echo chamber and reject everything else. America’s democracy has been tested and has proven resilient in the past, albeit with significant rough patches — the Civil War, the McCarthy Hearings, Jim Crow laws. Historians may look back on this era as another of those rough patches. Or it could turn out to be a different kind of era altogether. Obviously some people are not at all engaged in politics and don’t care about it. The hope is there’s enough of a more attentive activists concern segment of the public that can be active and in so doing help preserve a democratic system that’s carried us 240 years.