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Why some rights but not others? Blame the culture, but change it!

Protesters hang signs along US. highway 170 protesting the closure of thousands of acres.
Protesters hang signs along US. highway 170 protesting the closure of thousands of acres.
Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

I heard a joke today that asking why one “needs” an AR-15 is akin to asking why Rosa Parks “needed” to sit in the front of the bus. As a direct comparison the statement does good job of illuminating a disturbing trend in our political discourse. Certain rights have been elevated to primacy of place, almost sacraments of the civil religion. Other rights are being dismissed as less important, if not wholly dismissed as archaic, vestigial throwbacks of a less civilized time. One does not on fact need an AR-15 any more than Rosa Parks needed to sit in the front of a bus; but in questions of rights, need is irrelevant.

The Constitution is premised on a belief that certain rights are innate, existing before society by virtue of man’s capacity to reason and work. An individual in the state of nature can harvest materials from the land, work those materials into things of value, trade for other things and defend that which her work and trade has made her own. This bit about defense is important because while one may except that these rights exist in theory, the ability of a stronger to foe to kill you and take your stuff means that those rights do not exist in practice unless you are willing and able to defend them. This matters as more than just a primer for the nature of rights and social theory; it is just as relevant today as it was when the founders were developing the framework of the United States. If you disagree ask a Nevada rancher how real are their rights?

In the end the Constitution is nothing but a piece of paper. The great sins of the United States, from Slavery to Jim Crow to Japanese (and Italian) internment are periods when the reality on the ground fell short of the lofty aspirations of the document. The great genius of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is that the entire essay takes American society to task for failing to live up to their own expressed ideas. He doesn’t attack America as evil at inception. Rather he rejoices in the great promises of the United States and warns white society that if they do not honor the rights to which their fellow citizens who happen to be black are entitled, then those black citizens will have no choice but to take it upon themselves to secure and defend their own rights. This argument resonated with Americans because it was the same argument Jefferson presented to the English in the Declaration of Independence. It is deeply embedded in the American psyche.

These days no one who matters would think to deny citizens of any color the right to vote or the right to form associations and gather freely. If a town attempted to deny blacks the right to own property they would be rightly criticized and shamed by the rest of the country. Even the recent conversion of American society to support for marriage equality illustrates this point. Once American society processed marriage equality within the broader context of free association, opposition melted away in less than a decade. In such things those who seek to deny these rights are becoming the outliers, roundly rebuked by the broader society.

But some rights and liberties are going the other way. The right to own property and be secure in it is one upon which the success of the western liberal tradition rests and yet everything from eminent domain to taxing an increasing share of income to fund increasingly dubious programs and policies erodes this right. Linked to this is the right to engage in trade and voluntary exchange, yet if I am forced to purchase a product like health insurance and the law sets minimum prices and levels of coverage for which I must pay lest I be penalized, then this exchange is no longer voluntary, it extortion backed by the implied threat of violence.

If you ask Americans they will say the right to privacy in their persons and personal lives is a fundamental right, yet millions yawn at the outrages intrusion of a massive federal spy network being turned on the citizens of the United States, ostensibly for our own protection. If a foreign entity had engaged in such efforts it would be tantamount to an act of war, and yet many willingly acquiesce to this erosion of their civil liberties out of fear of some ill defined “other”.

Finally there is the right to bear arms. The founding fathers saw this right as an important guaranty of the others. They believed it was both a right and a responsibility. Just as each citizen should be armed and willing to defend their rights against some future potential of government tyranny, so was every citizen a part of the country liable to be called upon for everything from defense against attacks, to local security in an emergency.

It seems the common denominator in all of these examples is the popular culture. Those things which Hollywood and the media have decided are the “good” rights are championed in official and entertainment sources across genres. Those things which the glitterati have decide to oppose on the other hand, from gun ownership to backyard barbecues, become routinely denigrated and derided in the popular culture until the public has been sensitized to their rights being taken from them. It’s not enough to win elections or vote for candidates, if you want to retain your rights you must constantly argue their importance and convince others of the rightness of your cause. Through social media, local community organizations or the media the best way to defend freedom is to be a zealous and constant advocate.

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