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December 05, 2004

Rights and Obligations

When it comes to the origin of rights,* I'm with Maxwell Borders, who -- in the course of a long, delightful post at Jujitsui Generis -- says this in reply to another blogger:

...“Real rights are conferred by political institutions” is not the same as saying “real rights are conferred by a sovereign.” The former expresses the complex relationship in a social contract between agents, their laws, and their government. So, yes, they are both conferred and protected by such institutions, unless you are one of these anarcho-capitalists who lives in a fantasy world where private Team Americas will go off and protect us from the baddies....

I would put it just a bit differently: Human beings -- having a primordial yearning for rights -- form a political institution and adopt a constitution for the purpose of defining and securing those rights, as they define them through bargaining.**  The U.S. Constitution, as amended, therefore amounts to a contract. (It's an unusual sort of contract, to be sure, in that breaches are hard to remedy and those who inherit it can amend it only by an arduous process.)

A contract that grants rights usually assigns obligations, as well. What obligations does the U.S. Constitution implicitly or explicitly assign to Americans, as citizens? Here's my list, in no particular order:

  • Obey the law, generally
  • Pay taxes
  • Accept the money of the United States as legal tender
  • Respect patents, copyrights, and other recognized forms of intellectual property
  • Refrain from rebellion and insurrection
  • Serve in the armed forces (if the law requires it)
  • Refrain from committing treason
  • Serve on juries
  • Do not take anyone into slavery or involuntary servitude.

The list doesn't seem onerous. Then I think about some of the laws we must obey and the burden of taxation we bear. That line of thinking enables me to understand what drove a brave band of men to rebel against British rule, create a new nation, and establish the Constitution -- which has been so badly breached.

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* I've addressed the nature and origin of rights in several posts at Liberty Corner: here, here, here, here, here, and here. (Please overlook the somewhat sloppy treatment of natural rights in the earlier posts.) 

** Of course, things don't always work out as intended. See here, here, and here, for example.

Posted by Thomas Anger on December 05, 2004 | Permalink

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