The Madison Paradox and Obama’s Constitution Day Stealth Comment: Referring to Our Constitutional Rights as ‘Privileges’Posted: September 18, 2014
Maybe James Madison was right. Maybe the Bill of Rights wasn’t just unnecessary, it was a bad idea, destined to be viewed in the distant future exactly the wrong way
For United Liberty, Jason Pye catches Obama’s shaded wording, and writes a welcome blast of corrective historical clarity. Though I can’t resist including my own comments in the margins, the piece stands as testament to the power of word choices. Pye writes:
…In his presidential proclamation marking Constitution Day, President Barack Obama offered some insight into how he views the Bill of Rights. “Our Constitution reflects the values we cherish as a people and the ideals we strive for as a society,” Obama said in the release. “It secures the privileges we enjoy as citizens, but also demands participation, responsibility, and service to our country and to one another.”
“It secures the
rights privileges we enjoy as citizens, but also demands participation, responsibility, and service to our country and to one another.”
Given that this White House is known for its expansive view of executive power, the assertion that the rights guaranteed and protected under the Bill of Rights, the fact that President Obama views these fundamental liberties to be “privileges” isn’t too terribly surprising. After all, President Obama treats the legislative branch — which, again, is supposed to be a co-equal branch of the federal government — as an afterthought as it arbitrarily changes statues and even refuses to enforce laws.
But words matter. To say the rights secured by the Constitution are “privileges” implies that they can be revoked. Let’s put this another way: a high school-aged kid is given the privilege of taking their father’s car out to go hang out with friends, that is until they abuse it by getting caught speeding or into a car accident. The disappointed father would, no doubt, take away the privilege.
Rights and liberties, however, are based on a solid foundation. They can’t be taken away by some paternalistic president. The view of the framers was that the rights protected under the Bill of Rights existed before the formation of the federal government under the Constitution. In short, they were natural rights.
In fact, James Madison believed that a list of specific rights was unnecessary.
Though we celebrate the ratification of the Bill of Rights, I can’t help but interrupt to expand on Jason Pye‘s oversimplification — Madison didn’t believe that a list of specific rights was unnecessary, Madison and others believed listing individual rights would set a dangerous precedent. As illustrated in my half-remembered reading of Joseph J. Ellis’ “Founding Brothers” the dissenters wisely understood that making a special top-ten list of rights could lead to a troubling misperception that individual rights are limited, reducible to a specific list. Which could then be used to mislead future generations into accepting false limits.
It’s federal powers that are finite, narrow, and limited. So limited you could number them. (enumerated powers) Individual rights, as conceived by the founders–aren’t limited, they’re virtually infinite. Not reducible to a list. Enshrining some of them in a list would lead to, well, exactly the misunderstanding that persists to this day. The argument resisting an enumerated “Bill of Rights” wasn’t perfect, but it had merit. It showed foresight.
Jason Pye continues:
Thankfully, George Mason and others, to ensure ratification, convinced Madison to come up with proposals, ten of which were passed by Congress and approved by at least three-fifths of the states. Read the rest of this entry »
In the face of government spying, “Oh, well” is not the correct response
‘Until August 1914,” A. J. P. Taylor wrote, heartbreakingly, at the beginning of English History, 1914–45,
a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. . . . All this was changed by the impact of the Great War.
Thus did Liberal England begin to suffer its quick and “strange death.”
Here in America, eyebrows are being raised. In the middle of Queens this weekend, I heard a moderate-seeming father of three tell his friend that he generally had “no time for the conspiracy people.” “But,” he continued, shrugging his shoulders, “you look now and think, ‘Well, yeah.’ Those guys were always going on about this or that. Maybe I should have listened more closely?” What strange bedfellows the last two months of scandal and revelation have made. And what a disgrace that it has taken so long.
Nonetheless, who really needs “the conspiracy people” when so many of our institutions are tasked with spying on us in plain sight? “No one likes to see a government folder with his name on it,” wrote Stephen King in Firestarter. If this is true, we tolerate it manfully. Every year, as a condition of my being alive, I furnish the IRS with a huge range of personal information. As of next year, I will be required to alert them of my health-care arrangements, too. Who among us was honestly surprised when the IRS used the vast powers with which it has been endowed against the people who object to its existence? Nowadays, the government openly keeps files on each and every one of us. Lord knows what happens in secret.In the country that I left behind, it is worse. The streets of England are paved with cameras that film day and night without rest or interruption. On the roads, “average speed check” equipment tracks drivers along their way, recording where they have been and averaging out the time it took for them to get to each checkpoint in order to ensure that they are not traveling too fast. Number-plate-recognition systems are commonplace, and intended to become ubiquitous. At 3.4 million strong already, the National DNA Database grows like Topsy. No distinction is made between innocent and guilty; everyone falls into the net.
Because the British government owns and runs almost all the hospitals and employs the vast majority of the medical staff, if you wish to access the care for which you are forced at gunpoint to pay, you must hand your most sensitive information over to a bureaucrat. This process is not only accepted in the country of Locke, Mill, and Orwell; it is wholeheartedly celebrated, as if it were the national religion.
So complete has been the destruction of liberty’s cradle that, a few years back, the ruling Labour party felt comfortable suggesting that all British automobiles be mandated to carry state-owned GPS equipment that would track each car’s movements and automatically calculate one’s road taxes. With a few admirable exceptions, the ensuing debate was over whether this was practically feasible. One hundred years ago, the very suggestion would have been treated as downright treasonous. Now, it is blithely ignored. If this can happen there, it can happen here.