The origin of rights

Updated
 
The origin of rights
The origin of rights
TravelsWithDan/Flickr

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) recently appeared on one of the Sunday shows and connected his policy vision to, of all things, theology.

“We disagree with the notion that our rights come from government, that the government can now grant us and define our rights,” Ryan said. “Those are ours, they come from nature and God.”

Another prominent Republican congressman said something similar the other day.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul argued Thursday that people have a legal right to be left alone that emanates from God.

“It precedes the Constitution, it preexists, it comes, if you believe in God, from your Creator,” Paul said in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It comes in a natural way. It’s yours.”

“I think some conservatives get this thing wrong,” Paul added. “They say, ‘Oh you don’t have a right to privacy because it’s not in the Constitution.’ Well, there’s not a right to private property in the Constitution, either.”

Now, Rand Paul’s perspective on the right to privacy has its limits – he opposes women’s reproductive rights, for example – but he nevertheless believes we’re endowed by our Creator with a right to privacy.

Maybe he’s right, maybe not. Theological beliefs are personal, and I’m not inclined to criticize them. I am curious, though, about the practical applicability of the argument.

The common theme tying Rand Paul and Paul Ryan is the notion that rights have a divine origin, not a governmental one. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Ryan and Paul are correct and that rights – principled entitlements that cannot be taken away – come from above, not from politicians, laws, or courts.

What I’ve always wondered is what we’re supposed to do with this idea.

It’s not up to government, Paul Ryan says, to “grant us and define our rights.” OK, but if not, who or what will grant us and define our rights? It’s not like we can file a brief, seeking an advisory opinion from The Man Upstairs. There are no official American clerics, responsible for telling us which rights have been endorsed On High.

It would seem, then, that the choices are a theocracy, with a government based an interpretation of a scriptural text, or a secular constitutional system, where public institutions guarantee rights based on the rule of law.

Our rights can’t be “defined” by governmental institutions? I don’t know what system of government Paul Ryan has been studying, but it’s not ours.

Rand Paul and Paul Ryan

The origin of rights

Updated