Liddick: How entitlements became rights: A cautionary tale for Independence Day (column)
On Your Right
Tomorrow is, give or take a few days, the 242nd anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. One should take a few minutes annually on that day to read the Declaration through – really, it’s a quick read – and more than a few minutes to think about what the Founders considered so objectionable in how they were being treated by the crown. Remember, what they were signing was their death warrant, should their revolution fail.
It’s instructive not least because complaints about George III’s use of foul language and his making the colonists feel so uncomfortable they had to call in comfort puppies didn’t make the final cut. Instead, it’s a clearly written, straightforward statement of principles and a list of the king’s violations not only of the colonists’ rights as Englishmen, but more importantly, his several violations of their natural, God-given rights as acknowledged by George’s predecessors and the body of English common law reaching back to the Magna Carta.
It’s a bracing read from a time when people thought deeply about the nature of rights, about where they came from, and how valuable they were. Some people nowadays might be surprised to learn that “health care” wasn’t among them. Nor was housing, nor jobs, nor any of the modern plethora of so-called “rights” which require one group to subsidize the desiderata of another. Those are called “entitlements,” and making them the object of a government would have seemed truly bizarre to those who founded this country.
To understand why this is true, one should look again at our Declaration of Independence which, instead of reciting a litany of demands for government actions or emoluments, focused on what the authors saw as the most important element of human success: freedom. And on George III’s illegal abridgements of those freedoms.
At the center of the Declaration is the idea that governments are nothing more than instruments brought into being by popular agreement to achieve limited ends defined by that same popular agreement. Named among those ends, and therefore assumed to have been considered absolutely necessary, are life, liberty and property. The last was changed to “pursuit of happiness” in the final draft, but all the signers understood that the security of private property was the point. These are Enlightenment ideas, borrowed from English political philosopher John Locke and evolved over centuries of English debate and experience, including a brutal civil war, a regicide and the creation of the first modern constitutional monarchy.
The latter part of the Declaration is an indictment of George III for his usurpations, and it is a chilling read if one is able to translate the eighteenth-century text into today’s terms. Consider:
“He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” In England’s 18th century monarchy, the King’s assent was still necessary for the legislature to function. Substitute the intransigence of Chuck Schumer, or more broadly, political hard-liners of either flavor and what has one got? A stalemate, and no laws. Sound familiar?
“He has obstructed the Administration of Justice…” whether we are discussing the refusal of Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein to comply with lawful requests for information from Congressional oversight committees or to the generally lawless behavior of certain Department of Justice and intelligence community officials, the result is the same: obstruction of the people’s ability through their elected representatives, to arrive at a factual understanding of events surrounding our last presidential election.
“He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to, the Civil Power.” The intelligence and law enforcement agencies of the modern Federal government exercise such power as was unimaginable in the Founders’ day. Spying, detainer, surveillance of citizens – these were things done by the Army, not by civilians. And as with the example in the previous paragraph, these agencies have come to see themselves as decidedly “superior to the civilian power.”
“He has…sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People and eat out their Substance.” In 1950, federal civilian agencies employed 443,000; by 2014, that number was 1.36 million. The Federal government spent about $1,450 per capita in 1950; by 2016, just under $12,000. That doesn’t include the cost of complying with regulations, which might double the amount. We and our children are stuck with the bill for all of it.
There are many other relevant comparisons; a brief read of the Declaration will uncover them. So this Fourth of July, before the burgers and beer; before the conviviality and festivities and fireworks; before the parades and music and the rest, take a few minutes to review what the day commemorates. It may be revelatory, just not in a good or comforting way.
Have a happy Fourth.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News.
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