Scott Tibbs
blog post
February 6th, 2005

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Where do rights come from?

The Herald-Times made a simple but very important error in their February 4 editorial. The editorial board wrote:

Constitutions are documents that outline the rights that cannot be denied men or women. They are treasures that give rights to people, not pages of paper that take rights away.

As the Declaration of Independence states:

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.

Rights are not and cannot be granted by government; they exist by Divine providence. Rights exist separate from government. Even if government denies rights, those rights still exist.

The distinction is subtle, but vital. If it is a constitution that grants rights, a constitution can also take laws away with a simple amendment. The men who wrote the U.S. Constitution understood this principle as the foundation of liberty.

The U.S. Constitution does not grant rights. Instead, it places limits on government. If you read the Bill of Rights, notice how the language is applied to prohibit government actions that violate civil rights. The First Amendment, for example, does not declare that Americans have the right to freedom of speech. Instead, it says "Congress shall make no law" abridging the listed rights.

As government has gotten bigger and more intrusive, we have forgotten that government exists to serve the people, not the other way around. Saying that constitutions "grant rights" is a cornerstone of that mindset.