Independence Day about natural rights, not privileges bestowed by politicians

Photo courtesy Fabi Fliervoet, flickr

Photo courtesy Fabi Fliervoet, flickr

On July Fourth, Americans celebrate the ideals of the Declaration of Independence — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But these three principles aside, we often forget the underlying, truly radical ideas the Declaration is built upon.

The Fourth of July isn’t just about feel-good words and ideas that politicians invoke to gain the “consent of the governed.” Independence Day is about the freedom and duty of citizens to assert our natural rights — rights that are ours because we are human beings, not privileges bestowed upon us by the authorities.

It’s easy to forget that radical notion, that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The Declaration also warned that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government.”

The Declaration was a call to revolution against a regime that repeatedly violated these core rights. Modern politicians and, perhaps, even most Americans are confused about the concept of rights. They believe that “positive” rights — such as the “right” to health care or education — are of the same kind as those “negative” rights — essentially, the right to be left alone — defended by the American founders.

For instance, the right to free speech is the classic negative right that the founders sought to uphold. We, as Americans, have a right to air our grievances and criticize our government. While we can huff and puff endlessly about unchecked government power, not unless we air our grievances in the public sphere can we expect any satisfactory resolution or redress. We fail as citizens when we passively allow government to abridge our rights, restrict our freedom or inhibit our pursuit of happiness.

In our euphoric celebrations, we may forget that the Fourth isn’t about guaranteeing our happiness. The government’s purpose, rather, is to ensure that we have the opportunity and ability to pursue whatever form of happiness we choose, as long as we do not violate another citizen’s rights.

Nor is the Fourth about assuring equality. To the founders, freedom — not equality — was the crux of independence. The idea of equality was peripheral and only received a six-word blurb in the Declaration: “that all men are created equal.” By equal, the founders meant that we are equal before the law, not equal in our talents and material blessings.

Nineteenth-century French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville posed freedom and equality in opposition to one another, predicting that Americans’ love for equality would ultimately undermine and eclipse their freedom. That, unfortunately, was among Tocqueville’s many prescient observations.

Similarly, the Fourth isn’t about the triumph of democracy. To the founders, democratic government could be just as damaging as monarchies to individual rights. Just because we elect our leaders doesn’t make them less likely to trample on our natural rights. Freedom is best protected through limits on governments, the rule of law and the separation of powers.

Ponder that as the barbecues blaze, and the fireworks fill the air.

This editorial originally appeared in the Orange County Register on July 4, 2008.

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