Timothy Sandefeur: Government Does Not Give People Rights; They Already Have Them

Even after the Revolution, the founders were so skeptical of paper pledges of rights that the Constitution’s authors initially demurred when Americans demanded that it be amended to include a Bill of Rights. In their view, such ‘parchment barriers’ typically proved useless in times of crisis, because those in power could so easily revoke them, ignore them, or argue them away. Better to focus instead on designing a government that would include checks and balances and other structural protections to prevent the government from acting tyrannically. Even when they agreed to add a Bill of Rights, they remained convinced that freedom could never be secured solely through written promises. To them, freedom was not a privilege the state provides but a birthright the state must protect. George Mason put this point succinctly in June 1776, when he wrote in the Virginia Declaration of Rights that ‘all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights,’ which include ‘the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.’ Government does not give people these rights – people already have them, and the people ‘cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity’ of these rights. Thomas Jefferson would make the point even more concisely a month later, when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal’ and are ‘endowed’ with ‘inalienable rights,’ which include ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ Government exists ‘to secure these rights,’ not to grant them, and if it turns instead to destroying those rights, ‘it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish’ that government.
— Timothy Sandefeur, The Permission Society: How the Ruling Class Turns Our Freedoms into Privileges and What We Can Do About It