On July 4, 1776, Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence which boldly declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...”
The only specific rights named were “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These are “enumerated rights.” The document recognized that God is the ultimate source of human rights, “certain unalienable rights,” including those not specified in the Declaration. The latter are “unenumerated rights,” and the battle continues today to clarify what they are.
The drafting of the Constitution of the United States began May 25, 1787, as the Constitutional Convention met at the Pennsylvania State House, now Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Delaware became the first state to ratify the Constitution, Dec. 7, 1787. Rhode Island was the last to do so, May 29, 1790.
In debates prelude to our next presidential election day, Nov. 3, 2020, we witness passionate rhetoric about certain rights and who is entitled to what, a tumultuous process that began at our founding. The first 10 amendments to the Constitution, ratified Dec. 15, 1791, formed the Bill of Rights. Included is freedom of religion, speech and the press; right to bear arms; protection against unreasonable search and seizures; rules for due process of law; and, reserving all powers not delegated to the federal government to the people or the states. These, too, are enumerated rights.
The Bill of Rights was conceived amid heated controversy. James Wilson, a Federalist and supporter of the Constitution, argued against a Bill of Rights, concerned that enumerating specific rights could imply that any rights not listed were surrendered by citizens, justifying government’s power to limit liberties of citizens that were not enumerated. However, the Anti-Federalist demand for a Bill of Rights was popular with the public. Resolving the argument was the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” a clear reference to non-specified “unenumerated rights.”
Unenumerated rights include the presumption of innocence in criminal cases, rights to privacy, the right to travel within the country.
Candidates for U.S. president are stumping for an expansion of enumerated rights. In a June 12, 2019, speech at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Bernie Sanders proposed an Economic Bill of Rights that included rights to health care, affordable housing, education, a living wage and secure retirement.
“Economic rights are human rights. That is what I mean by democratic socialism,” said Sanders.
Here’s the rub. Enumerated rights give me a right as a citizen to legally pursue life, liberty and happiness. Nowhere do our governing documents require another citizen to pay for my exercise of those rights. If I desire quality health care, advanced education beyond public schools, decent housing, a living wage, and secure retirement, it’s up to me to attain those things without forcibly taking something away from fellow citizens.
As citizens we may agree to provide aid and comfort to needy persons. We support Medicare and Medicaid; aid for veterans. We subsidize free public education through K-12. We offer disaster relief for those devastated by natural and manmade calamities. As individuals we may chose to be generous with faith-based and other charities. Conversely, we have a personal responsibility to pay for adequate levels of insurance to fund “what if?” eventualities.
Despite being endowed by our Creator with natural rights, individuals have the right to deny the existence of a Creator and live life as atheists. We continue to debate issues of religion versus the public square. Healthy and sometimes violent debate was the foundation for rights documented in the 1700s, and throughout the 1800s, a period marked by a bloody civil war over slavery and states rights. We wrestled with unjust discriminatory Jim Crow laws, culminating in the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Freedom has never been free. It’s been paid for by those willing to “risk it all,” including loss of life, limb, and property.
We will have vigorous debates about who pays for proposed free health care, free college, expanded levels of subsidized housing, a guaranteed income, a secure retirement. Who defines “a secure retirement?”
Federal debt is growing exponentially. Do we borrow even more? Tax the rich? Based on 2017 data, it takes at least $718,766 in gross earnings for a couple or individual to be in the often maligned “top 1 percent.” Entry to the top 10 percent of earners takes $118,400. (Economic Policy Institute.) There are not enough “rich” to carry the financial burden. The middle class needs help, declare politicians, yet it’s the middle class that ultimately pays the bills.
“A rhetorical pretzel,” you say. Exactly! Something to ponder this Independence Day. What’s your solution, dear citizen?
Lewis Walker, CFP®, is a financial life planning strategist at Capital Insight Group; 770-441-3553;email@example.com. Securities & advisory services offered through The Strategic Financial Alliance, Inc. (SFA). Lewis is a registered representative and investment adviser representative of SFA, otherwise unaffiliated with Capital Insight Group. He’s a Gallup Certified Clifton Strengths Coach and Certified Exit Planning Advisor.