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Government as Slave Owner


Originally published February 1, 2000

The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that "all men . . . are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." This assertion captured the idealism and the principles of this nation's Founding Fathers.

Unfortunately, the notion of the citizen's inviolable right to liberty is vanishing from the American political landscape. Attorney General Janet Reno, in a 1995 speech vindicating federal actions at Waco, informed a group of federal law enforcement officers: "You are part of a government that has given its people more freedom . . . than any other government in the history of the world." Contemporary politicians and political scientists have greatly improved on Thomas Jefferson. Progressive thinking about government is exemplified in a new book titled The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxation (Norton, 1999), by Princeton University professor Stephen Holmes and University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein.

Holmes and Sunstein perform dazzling intellectual gymnastics that leave common sense in the dust. They begin by asserting that "the individual rights of Americans, including the right to private property, are generally funded by taxes, not by fees. This all-important funding formula signals that, under American law, individual rights are public not private goods." Thus, it is completely up to the current government what rights—if any—today's citizens will have.

The American Revolution was fought in large part because colonists believed the British government was violating their pre-existing rights. However, Holmes and Sunstein reveal that "rights are rooted in the most shifting of all political soils, that of the annual budgetary process, a process thick with ad hoc political compromises." All rights are mysteriously created somewhere in the congressional appropriation process—somewhere between the first draft of a legislative bill on an intern's laptop and the notes a lobbyist slips to a congressman while wheeling and dealing on the final version.

Holmes and Sunstein spare no effort to stomp out any notion of inviolable rights. They say, "It is more realistic and more productive to define rights as . . . selective investments of scarce collective resources, made to achieve common aims and to resolve what are generally perceived to be urgent common problems." The authors also define rights as "welfare-enhancing investments, extracted by society for society's purposes" and assert that "all legal rights are, or aspire to be, welfare rights."

Thus when the Founding Fathers proclaimed in the Bill of Rights that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press" it was no different from contemporary congressmen's voting for food stamps.

Freedom through Intervention

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