Government and Rights

Sorry about missing the last few days.  I’ve had a lot going on plus I’ve been fighting off (and losing the battle) the early stages of a cold.

Some people say that rights are something granted to you by government.  That you have something as a right because the government says you have it.  A related argument that people make is that a thing can’t be a right if the government can take it from you.

Both of these are absurd propositions.

First off consider what it means if rights only exist because the government says they do.  That directly implies that rights don’t exist if the government says they don’t.  If you take that position, then nothing government does can ever be “wrong”.

Let’s look at some examples to see where the government granting rights, and therefore is able to take them away, leads.

In March of 1492, the then government of Spain, specifically the Joint Catholic Monarchs of Spain, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, ordered the expulsion of all the practicing Jews from Castile and Aragon and all their territories and possessions (including essentially all of modern Spain as well as additional territories).  This, of course, was entirely proper (given our presumption that government grants rights) since the government is simply rescinding the right of those Jews to live in Castile and Aragon and possessions.

There can be no objection to this, of course, since the right to live there was granted by the government and therefore could be taken away by the government.

In 1836 the “Treaty of New Echota” called for the removal of the Cherokee from all lands east of the Mississippi.  Some few moved voluntarily in response to this treaty.  However, in the end the Cherokee were forced first into concentration camps, then on the horrible Trail of Tears in forced migration to the west.

There can be no objection to this, of course, since the right to live east of the Mississippi, or to live at all, was granted by the government and therefore could be taken away by the government.

In 1838 the then Governor of Missouri issued a proclamation that the new religion of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) were to be treated as enemies of the State and exterminated or driven out.  (This order was not rescinded until 1976).

There can be no objection to this, of course, since the right to live in Missouri, or to live at all, let alone practice ones religion, was granted by the government and therefore could be taken away by the government.

In 1934, among many other things, German law stripped Jews of their German citizenship, forbade them from marrying or having sexual relations with non-Jews. (There was much worse to come, of course, so let this stand in proxy for that.)

There can be no objection to this, of course, since the right to citizenship, to marry, and who one might have sex with, were granted by the government and therefore could be taken away by the government.

Well, we could go on and on.  If one takes the view that rights are granted by government and follows that through to its conclusion that therefore government can rescind those rights at its pleasure, then there is no atrocity, no matter how heinous, that government can do and one is left with no basis to object.  If your right to life comes from government, then it is equally valid for government to rescind that right and kill you.

No, if rights exist at all, they must exist independent of government.  They might be, as the Founders of the US stated something a person is “endowed by their Creator” or simply something they hold simply as the virtue of being human.  This is the only way that one can say that a government does right or wrong.  If rights come from government then nothing a government does can be wrong.  Only if rights are inherent in being human can say that a government does wrong.

The people who made up the Continental Congress did not think it necessary to go through this reasoning to come to the conclusion.  It was “water to a fish” to them.  Thus: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these rights are Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, securing their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Governments do not grant rights, not in the ultimate sense.  We may use the word “right” to refer to some things that are not innate human rights, but are tied to the form of government.  The right to vote is a big one there.  But when it comes to the basic human rights, they are completely independent of government.  Government does not grant them.  Government can not rescind them.  Government can only uphold them or infringe upon them.

And when government infringes upon them, it is government that is wrong.  And it is the right of the people, collectively or individually, to stand against that government and say “no.”

History, of course, is replete with examples of governments trampling on the rights of the people.  Indeed, that seems to be the norm more often than not.  It is only when the people, united in their determination to enforce their basic human rights stand up and force government to recognize their rights, when they are willing to put their all behind the rights not just of themselves but of all men and women within their reach, that “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” becomes an achievable idea.

It happens when to these ends “We Mutually Pledge To Each Other Our Lives, Our Fortunes And Our Sacred Honor.”

3 thoughts on “Government and Rights”

  1. In late 1957 my family moved into a newly-built house. I think it was the next year that a Reformed LDS group started building a new church across the street from us.


  2. There are many important benefits that come from living in a Christian-Capitalist civilization. Including the concept of Human Rights, given to people by God, above the will of gov’t. Good TV and health care and low cost abundant food are other benefits.

    Many people want to redefine rights to be the same as these and other benefits.

    I mostly agree that an admirable civilization will grant an easy path to many fine benefits, including gov’t benefits. Receiving them is getting a benefit. Benefits are not rights.


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