March 6, 2012
To My Fellow Citizens:
Rights are at the heart of American politics. Anyone wanting to understand our experiment in self government must grasp what we meant when we began that experiment by proclaiming, as self-evident truths, “that all men … are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and that it is “to secure these rights” that “Governments are instituted among Men.” In our last letter, we reflected that the phrase “among these” is evidence that the authors of the Declaration of Independence, when listing three rights any legitimate government exists to secure, did not want to rule out the possibility of other rights deserving protection—such as the right to property.
We see the same concern reflected in the Constitution’s Ninth Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Both our great founding documents, then, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, sought to protect against the danger that future governments might construe too narrowly the rights that defined their duties and justified their powers. Both documents explicitly reject the idea that the natural rights they enumerate are necessarily the only unalienable rights that government must protect. What they did not do and could not do is provide an exhaustive list of such rights.
Enter Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. FDR’s New Deal presented itself as a necessary updating of the American Founding’s 18th century principles to make them applicable to urgent 20th century realities. “This Republic had its beginning,” said Roosevelt in his 1944 State of the Union address, “and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights….” But,
As our nation has grown in size and stature… – as our industrial economy expanded – these political rights proved inadequate….
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.
In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all….
History had made “self-evident” to FDR and his progressive forebears that the self-evident truths of the American Founding were inadequate as a foundation for a just political order in our time. “Social justice,” as Roosevelt had written in 1938, “is essentially a conception of this century. It was not visualized by the men who founded the nation.” A re-founding was needed, and that is what the New Deal offered. Anyone resisting the new vision and wishing to return to the principles of the original Founding would be a reactionary.
Roosevelt’s second Bill of Rights included rights to adequate employment, business opportunities, housing, medical care, education, and protection against old age, sickness, and unemployment. Those who find it hard to imagine a guarantee of economic security that is not included in this list are not thinking like New Dealers. A year before the 1944 State of the Union Address the National Resources Planning Board, an agency created to map out a domestic policy agenda for implementation after victory in World War II, had submitted a report to Congress with its own bill of social welfare rights. It included “The right to education, for work, for citizenship, and for personal growth and happiness,” and “The right to rest, recreation, and adventure, the opportunity to enjoy life and take part in advancing civilization.”
Replacing the Founders’ understanding of unchanging natural rights with an ever-evolving wish-list under the name of rights is central to the modern liberal enterprise and is the key to understanding the boundlessness of that enterprise. The Obama administration recently demonstrated one of the problems with this approach: If any social policy goal may be proclaimed a right, any right may be regarded as just another policy goal. The Department of Health and Human Services navigated this two-way street by announcing that the Affordable Care Act required non-profit employers to offer contraceptive coverage to their employees, even if they have never done so in the past due to religious convictions. The rationale, according to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, was to strike “the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services.” The implication is clear: The government is going to balance two commensurate things, religious freedom and the provision of important preventive services. For the latter to become a right, just like the former, the former needs to be whittled down to fit a domestic agenda, just like the latter.
The biggest problem with the HHS contraception rule is not that HHS made the wrong decision, but that HHS was wrong to make a decision. A properly constituted republican government protects, rather than occupying and managing, the space wherein citizens follow their consciences while securing the employment and insurance arrangements they desire. Such restraint comes naturally to a government that exists to secure a finite number of unchanging natural rights (even if it is imprudent to proclaim an exhaustive list of those rights) but is foreign to one that supposes historical progress vouchsafes an endless list of rights—so that, as a result, nothing is really a right.