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Government exists to protect rights, not to create them.
“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 are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men . . . .”
"Government . . . should be formed to secure and to enlarge the exercise of the natural rights of its members; and every government which has not this in view, as its principal object, is not a government of the legitimate kind."
-James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1791
The primary role of government is to secure “unalienable” rights—those rights which are so intrinsic to humans that they cannot be made foreign [alien] to us. They are intrinsic because they are “endowed by our Creator.”
John Adams explained this concept by saying people "have rights antecedent to [that is, granted before] all earthly governments—rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws, rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe." This is not a modern religious zealot's wishful interpretation of what the Founders meant when they penned the Declaration of Independence. John Adams knew the intent of the authors—he was one of them. He was appointed by the Continental Congress, along with Thomas Jefferson and three others, to choose its wording.
Alexander Hamilton wrote of human rights, “They are written in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by a mortal power.” John Locke, whose writings heavily influenced the Founders, recognized that in order to secure rights, government must punish those who violate the rights of others. The Bible makes clear that government has the responsibility to protect the rights of the powerless and the authority to punish those who do evil. Thus, government is to serve as a protector, not a creator, of rights.
What about the Bill of Rights? Did it create new rights to be established in our Constitution? No. Each of the ten amendments comprising the Bill of Rights merely acknowledges an existing right and then restricts the government from interfering with the exercise of that right.
In today's society, the term "rights" conveys a very different meaning from what the Founders intended. When they wrote about rights in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other early documents, the phrase, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" sufficiently described the inherent rights of the people.
By the way, the phrase "pursuit of happiness" did not mean the right to pursue whatever made a person happy without regard for others. The Founders knew that the same Creator who granted the right to pursue happiness had laid the ground rules for its attainment. Happiness, therefore, was necessarily tied to moral decisions.The Founders also believed the pursuit of happiness included the right to own property. In fact, the phrase, "life, liberty, and property" was the phrase most commonly used in similar contexts in early state constitutions.
This turns the Founders' view on its head. They knew that all inalienable rights have this in common: they require nothing from anyone else—except respect. As one writer put it, they are rights you would have even if there were no government.
For example, we often hear about the "right to health care." And, the fact is that we do have a right to go to the doctor or the hospital without government interference. But the debate today is not whether I have the right to go to the doctor; it is whether I have the right to make you pay for my medical bills.
When government creates rights, liberty is threatened, because laws and regulations are needed in increasing breadth and detail to define those rights. Enforcement of those laws and regulations requires more government agencies and more regulators, producing excessive intrusion into our citizens' lives. Of course, having more agencies and regulators also means higher taxes.
Government’s creation of rights can also lead to the abuse of political power, as government officials create or modify rights for the mere purpose of political gain. Respect for the law is replaced by cynicism, as rights are perceived by the public as being subject to the whim and control of whoever is in power at any given time.
Such an environment nurtures a seedbed of corruption, as more and more of those who seek office do so simply to gain power for themselves, and by it to gain personal advantage or wealth, or to exact revenge on those who may have misused power against them in the past.
One of the most devastating effects of government-created rights is the “Government is our Savior” syndrome. Consciously or subconsciously, citizens begin to assume that the state has the capacity and the responsibility to solve all societal ills and injustices. (For more on this, see principle #3.)
Since some rights are inalienable, is it ever acceptable for government to restrict them? Yes. When someone commits a crime, he or she is violating someone else’s God-given right to life, liberty, or property. Only in such instances are inalienable rights properly restricted by the government, as it exercises its responsibility to punish those who do evil. Even then, the criminal maintains some inherent rights—to be treated humanely; to be given a fair, speedy, and public trial to prevent the government from arbitrarily using its power; and to be represented by an attorney who can help protect his rights. From a different perspective, you could say that the rights of criminals are not really taken away by government; rather, the criminals cede their rights by the actions they have chosen.
The primary role of government is to secure the inalienable rights of the people, not to create new rights. If government officials understand their vital role as stewards and protectors of God-given rights, they will govern with humility and restraint.