The concept of rights once commanded respect as a central tenet of our constitutional republic. No longer. Liberals, consistent with their tendency to attack every institution of the American tradition, fail even here to pay any tribute to this time-honored bulwark of liberty. Rather than as fundamental staples which rise above the intemperate politics of the day, “rights” as a concept have become a political hatchet for the advancement of specific policy agendas.
Hopelessly stuck in an entitlement mentality, liberals are insistent upon a “right” to everything in modern-day America. That which was once considered privilege as declared by a duly elected legislature – or even seen as completely outside the purview of government – has been clumsily relabeled as a system of untouchable and incontestable “rights.” Proposition 8 in California has led to a misguided defense of the “right” to gay marriage. The healthcare debate has been dominated by partisan references to the “right” to coverage. And in the second half of the 20th century, we witnessed abortion, long considered under the purview of state legislatures, declared a “right” protected by a strained interpretation of the Constitution.
Of course, not one of these or the countless other “rights” invented by the American left is actually constitutional or justifiable. Marriage is not a “right”; it is a privilege, and its terms and limits are to be arrived at deliberately by the political community. Healthcare is certainly not a right, and in all of American history it has never once been recognized as such. It is a basic service that we hope that all have access to, but not a responsibility of the government. And abortion, regardless of how one feels on the matter, is an issue to be grappled with by the people, not declared an unassailable “right” by the Supreme Court.
The bankruptcy of authenticity inherent in this strategy is thinly veiled, however. Liberals relentlessly slap the label “right” on anything they wish to see implemented as policy in order to stifle debate or remove the issue from the influence of the will of the electorate. If something cannot stand electoral muster, the label is applied, so that the issue is insulated from public detraction or electoral recourse. After all, who dares deny in the public discussion any one of these manufactured “rights,” especially after they have been forced into the rhetorical tradition of our founding documents? In the same spirit but in the legal realm, liberals desperately hope that judicial declarations of “right” will supersede the representative elements of government.
This was the real reason why liberals feel the need to label gay marriage a “right.” With such a label, it cannot be controlled by the state legislature or even challenged in a friendly discussion. Once healthcare is declared a “right,” the moral prerogative falls on the government to provide what liberals really crave – a socialized health system free from challenge. And abortion must, at all costs, be declared a “right,” lest the matter be left inconveniently to the test of democracy, by which unwelcome outcomes are far too likely. The use of “rights” in this way is not only logically inaccurate, it is intellectually dishonest.
The hypocrisy of this relabeling scheme is just as obvious as its cynicism. Liberals are quick to hail ethereal “rights,” while steadfastly curtailing, or outright denying, those rights actually honored by heritage or enumerated in the Constitution. Historically recognized rights which do not fit into the policy agenda of the American left are to be trampled upon without hesitation or remorse. Current or prospective labor union members do not deserve the legitimate right to a secret ballot as such a measure may well serve to undermine the unions themselves. The right to own a gun is treated with skepticism and horror. No one has the right to too much money, or to pass it to their children, without excessive taxation. Property, supposedly the timeless currency of a greedy and corrupt capitalist system, is subject to state seizure at any moment and without cause. To the American Left, actual rights, such as the rights to vote with secret ballots, possess firearms, contract freely or even own property – all of which tend to undermine a liberal agenda – are surely no rights at all.
By way of the illusory “rights” campaign, liberals have hijacked one of the most sacred elements of the American political tradition and turned it into a partisan weapon which we face not with pride, but anxiety. Once the beacon of our political order, the concept of rights has become a tool for insulating public policy prescriptions from honest public discourse and representative legislatures.
At the birth of our nation, Americans came together as a community to constitutionally define our rights in order to protect them against both majority and minority whims. And that’s why, from time to time, with temperance and irrespective of factional agendas, we marginally read just our understanding of those rights laid down by our forefathers. Reasonable people can genuinely disagree about such readjustment through interpretation of our Constitution, and not all opinions on legitimate rights will align. But all must remember that while the concept of rights is not simply the product of the majority, neither is it a blunt instrument to be wielded by the minority. Liberals today should understand that the partisan references to imaginary “rights” tend to detract from the authority of those real rights so fundamental to the American republic. Rights, after all, are to be respected for what they are, not for what some ambitious special interests would like them to be.
Jeffrey Long is a sophomore in the College. The Traditionalist appears every other Monday at thehoya.com.