Founding Philosophy on a Friday
From Matthew Continetti’s review of The Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It, by Larry P. Arnn:
An observer of contemporary American politics would assume that we have rights to just about everything—not only to those freedoms mentioned specifically in the Declaration, but also to an abortion, to marry a member of the same sex, and to food, housing, health insurance, transportation, and all the other accoutrements of a full and “equal” life. When most Americans talk about rights today, they are following the lead of our 32nd president, who told the Commonwealth Club in September 1932, “The task of statesmanship has always been the redefinition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order.”
For the men who wrote the Declaration and Constitution, however, the rights we possess are antecedent to society. Our right to property begins with our bodily selves. We exist, and therefore have a right to life. We speak, and therefore have a right to speech. We think, and therefore have a right to conscience. We have hands that can work, and therefore have a right to the fruit of that labor.
Government does not redefine rights as history runs its course. The teaching of the Declaration and the Constitution is that human beings institute government to protect the rights they already possess by virtue of being. We do not have rights to goods that exist only in society, such as health insurance, college loans, and pensions, since the provision and redistribution of these material benefits can take place only after government is established, and would require the government to infringe on our natural, pre-social, corporal rights.