Posted by Curt on 5 November, 2019 at 11:59 am. 6 comments already!


The Founding Fathers aren’t very popular in public high schools these days. Apart from a cursory and incomplete introduction to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, much of what our Framers wrote is ignored.

Every once in a while, however, a teacher or administrator might quote what she thinks is Thomas Jefferson’s rationale for public education, as if our current fixation on “college and career readiness” were what he had in mind when he wrote: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Ironically, though, many teachers are ignorant of the very things Jefferson thought necessary for a free civilization. I became aware of this during some acrimonious labor negotiations between my school district and its teachers union. In various ways, the union warned that my rights (and my students’ rights) were in jeopardy if the district didn’t accede to the union’s demands.

The freedom Jefferson had in mind depends on understanding the conceptual and philosophical foundation upon which one can claim a “right” to anything. If that foundation erodes because of negligent education institutions, Jefferson expected the walls of our self-governing republic to topple.

What Can Be Considered a Right?

We often hear of one’s “right” to education or health care, although these are not rights in the technical sense. As the things we are told we have a “right” to grows each year, why shouldn’t a 5 percent raise be considered a teacher’s right?

The rhetoric of rights is appealing. Label whatever you want a “right” and you tip the scales in your favor. However appealing the tactic may be, however, is conceptually incorrect and politically dangerous.

A “right” is not something you deeply desire. The Founders understood that a right is a constraint upon others not to violate what humans do by nature of being human. The very concept of “rights” implies a belief in human nature. In the words of Alexander Hamilton, “The sacred rights of mankind…are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the Divinity itself; and can never be erased.”

You Have a Right to Do What Humans Do By Nature

Rights are not given to us by governments, but they are recognized and protected by the best governments. Rights are ours by nature, which is to say that humans, by nature of being human, do certain things. To protect someone’s rights is thus to protect one’s freedom to live a fully human life.

To offer an analogy: a flower, by nature, absorbs nutrients from the soil and sun and blossoms in the spring. That’s what it means to be a flower. Absorbing nutrients and blossoming in spring are its rights, for that is what it does according to its nature. A society seeking to protect the natural rights of flowers would constrain anyone wishing to stop the flower from doing what flowers do. Thankfully, though, we don’t yet live in such a world.

But humans do have rights. The Founders not only held beliefs about our nature but made a value judgment on that nature. Thus we have “rights,” chief of which is the “right to life,” to secure the sacredness of human life. We also reason and, acting on that reason, we pursue human flourishing; thus we have the right to “liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

By definition, humans reason and act in accordance with that reason. Jefferson can write “all men are created equal,” a phrase that perplexes many of my students who find it patently false after a cursory empirical investigation. But to say “all men are created equal” is to state the obvious: we are all human and we all do what humans do. It’s an obvious but profound and deadly idea, undermining anyone claiming a right to rule by nature over anyone else.

Consequently, this view of human nature entails the right to self-governance. As rational animals exercising reason and striving after our own ends in community with others doing the same, we all have the right to participate in creating the laws under which we live.

In light of this view of human nature, our Bill of Rights safeguards those rights in order for us to fully live as humans. To offer two examples: freedom of speech safeguards our rights both to participate in self-governance and to reason with our fellow humans. And the freedom to bear arms safeguards both our very lives by allowing us to defend ourselves and our right to “alter or to abolish” any government failing to protect our rights.

Rights Aren’t Just Things That Would Be Nice To Have

Contrary to what many students learn in school, rights are not things that we think would be nice or even things that we need to live. For example, an education is not a right if it means that someone must teach me what I don’t know. A “right to an education” is not a constraint upon others to safeguard my human nature, but a demand imposed on others to satisfy a want.

To fulfill one’s illegitimate “right” to an education, someone’s else’s real right to liberty would be violated, for one must be forced to educate you if no one does so willingly. Yes, education is important, but it is not a right. If we institute a system of free, universal education, it should be done so by mutual consent of all involved and should be eliminated or altered when the majority deems necessary. In other words, free, universal education might be a good idea or a good policy, but it is not a right. The same goes for health care and raising teachers’ salaries.

To wade into more controversial territory, much of what is said regarding gay rights or transgender rights also misses the mark. What gay and transgender rights activists fight for are not rights, but definitions.

Prior to 2015, gays weren’t denied their right to marry. They could have married if they had wanted to—if they married someone of the opposite sex. Marriage was defined as a union between a man and a woman (for the sake of producing and rearing children). But activists claimed that everyone had the right to marry the one they love, not realizing they were talking nonsense: We don’t marry the one we love by nature of being human, so it’s not a right.

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