Friday, July 04, 2008

"We hold these truths to be self-evident"

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.

Today, the United States celebrates the 232nd anniversary of declaring, "That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved." Or as I'm starting to think of it, "Go to hell, you limeys" Day.

I couldn't imagine anyone other than Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence. Even young children know about "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," but there's something most people don't notice when Jefferson begins that proclamation of unalienable rights. His inclusion of this, and several other subtleties, was no accident.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident..."

Think about it: self-evident. The rights reveal themselves to mankind, and someone who can't see their existence is either an ignoramus or a self-deceived tyrant. Tyrants aren't only kings and dictators, either. Tyrants can be your neighbors too, when they use the power of "majority vote" to declare themselves rulers over you and your property.

Tyrants, "democracies" and any other form of government may create laws and new vocabularies, but no matter what laws they pass, what parchments they write or stones they smooth and re-chisel, they cannot erase the fact that our unalienable rights exist and are self-evident. That's the wonderful nature of true rights: they're not dependent on what government says, and in fact, the only legitimate purpose of government is "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." This is another example of Jefferson's rhetorical precision: just powers, not merely "powers." Unjust powers, then, cannot come from the people's consent.

Contrast unalienable rights with the "civil rights" that most Americans today will demand and invoke, rights that are granted by government, because prior to the laws, the rights necessarily did not exist. For if the rights already exist, a law is by definition unnecessary, except to proclaim that the right exists a priori and is hereby safeguarded. Contrast the 1964 Civil Rights Act with the Bill of Rights. The former, as Kennedy introduced it in a 1963 speech, is "giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public..." Giving. This is the legal positivism that I've mentioned Friedrich Hayek often criticized. Sadly, Jefferson was so correct to explain that "all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." Americans have been bred, and willingly let themselves and their children be bred, to be obedient "citizens" of the State.

The Bill of Rights, though, being based on self-evident unalienable rights, declares that "Congress shall make no law" infringing on several rights, and that certain enumerated rights "shall not be infringed" or "shall not be violated." This implicitly defines them as a priori, particularly when the Ninth Amendment declares that the enumeration does not mean those are the only rights. Good law does not tie down people -- it ties down government.

Frédéric Bastiat wrote several decades later, adding to Jefferson, that "Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place." Existing beforehand, and self-evident.


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