Over the weekend, I was reading a lecture given by Constitutional scholar Charles R. Kesler, a professor at Claremont McKenna College and editor of the Claremont Review of Books.
The lecture, titled “Limited Government: Are the Good Times Really Over?” presented many interesting perspectives but one passage posed by the lecture captured my imagination, especially as it relates to the Free Enterprise Forum’s local government focus:
A new theory of the Constitution corresponded to this new theory of rights. FDR put it memorably in his 1932 Commonwealth Club Address: Government is a contract under which “rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights.” According to this view, we give the rulers power and the rulers give us rights. In other words, rights are no longer natural or God-given, but emerge from a bargain struck with the government. And it is up to liberal statesmen or leaders to keep the bargain current, redefining rights constantly-adding new rights and subtracting some of the old ones-in order to keep the living Constitution in tune with the times. Entitlement rights-rights created and funded by government-replace natural rights. Given this new relationship of people and government, we don’t need to keep a jealous eye on government anymore, because the more power we give it, the more rights and benefits it gives us back-Social Security, Medicare, prescription drug benefits, unemployment insurance, and on and on.
This statement buried near the end of the lecture caused me great pause as it relates to local government control of land use issues.
I have often highlighted that it was John Locke in his Second Treatise Concerning Civil Government who first developed the concept of natural rights including “life liberty and property (or estate)”. Our own Thomas Jefferson, one of many of our aristocratic forefathers who read Locke’s work, altered the language importantly in our Declaration of Independence:
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. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The differences between FDR’s 1932 speech at The Commonwealth Club and The Declaration of Independence are as subtle as they are important. In the Declaration, governments derive their power by consent of the governed. In FDR’s speech, rights are doled out by government so as to create a condition for the governed to consent.
Local land use across our region falls more toward the Commonwealth Club address than the Declaration position. In countless planning commission and Board of Supervisors meetings I have heard the phrase “we are not taking away any rights since we gave them to you in the first place”.
Interestingly, in the 1932 Commonwealth Club Speech FDR also provided his rationale for individual property rights:
Every man has a right to his own property; which means a right to be assured, to the fullest extent attainable, in the safety of his savings. By no other means can men carry the burdens of those parts of life which, in the nature of things afford no chance of labor; childhood, sickness, old age. In all thought of property, this right is paramount; all other property rights must yield to it. If, in accord with this principle, we must restrict the operations of the speculator, the manipulator, even the financier, I believe we must accept the restriction as needful, not to hamper individualism but to protect it.
The Free Enterprise Forum believes any market that is highly regulated by government will be less agile to respond to consumer demands and thus will be less competitive than a less regulated market.
Where do rights come from?
We tend to agree with Jefferson and Locke. Men (and women) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, Property and the pursuit of Happiness.
Government should serve the people to protect these Creator given rights.
At the end of the day, this really does not seem like such a radical position.