This is a hard post to write, because I’ve spent the better part of my adult life–as a lawyer, as a university professor and (at various times) a columnist– defending and explaining America’s Constitution and Bill of Rights. But I just listened to a fascinating podcast from the University of Chicago’s law school, titled “What are rights?” and the reflections it prompted made me connect some “dots” that I’ve encountered over the years, and ponder questions I’ve ignored or–more accurately–repressed.
In the U.S. Constitution, rights are conceived of as negative. When US was founded, governments were far and away the most powerful threat to individual liberty, and accordingly, the Bill of Rights protected individual rights against government intrusions. (When I was Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I was routinely astonished by the number of people who didn’t understand that the Bill of Rights only protected them against government–that its guarantees weren’t some sort of free-floating shield against all manner of restraints.)
Other Western democracies don’t necessarily share–or even understand–that limited and negative conception of constitutional rights. Many years ago, I delivered a paper at a conference in Milan, Italy, that included an analysis of a then-recent Supreme Court case, and an Irish scholar challenged me; he thought my description couldn’t possibly be correct because the American notion of negative constitutional rights was unfamiliar to him.
And that brings me to the podcast that triggered this post. That discussion distinguished between human rights and constitutional rights.
Placing rights in a country’s constitution requires a significant government infrastructure to enforce them–statutes, courts, the training of those who must police and protect citizens. As a result, as the participants in the podcast noted, we want to be prudent –to constitutionalize only the most important of those human rights.
What is “most important,” of course, depends on the cultural context.
Listening to the podcast sent me back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued by the United Nations in 1948. That document enumerated what were considered basic human rights at the time–and it included both negative and positive rights. As the Preamble describes those rights, they include recognition of the “inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…
The entire planet is currently watching a government engage in those “barbarous acts,” as Russia continues its assault on Ukraine–an assault that underlines the continued ability of governments to disregard the fundamental right to human and national self-determination.
In today’s world, however, governments are far from the only powerful actors capable of invading the rights of citizens. Multi-national corporations, obscenely rich oligarchs, and angry “tribes” of citizens enraged by loss of privileged status and empowered by “free press” propaganda all pose a significant and growing threat to both human and constitutional rights.
I have become increasingly convinced that a constitution that protects only negative rights–the “right to be left alone”–important as those protections are, is insufficient.
Re-read that paragraph from the Universal Declaration, especially the phrase “freedom from fear and want.” Other Western democracies have constitutionalized positive rights– to education, to health care, and to housing. The Universal Declaration itself includes positive rights, including the right to education, and the right “to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family,
including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
America’s Constitution and Bill of Rights were major and dramatic innovations for their time. The documents crafted by the nation’s Founders triggered a philosophical and cultural departure from the then-widespread belief in the divine right of kings and the concomitant disregard for the rights of common folks. For the first time, subjects became citizens, and citizens had rights.
We may have arrived at yet another point in human history when we need to rethink how we envision governing–including reconsideration of where the most significant threats to individual liberty reside today, and which additional human rights are important enough to be constitutionalized.