We exercise them without assistance. I will call these our solitary or primary rights. The freedom to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is, perhaps, the most fundamental expression of those rights.
In the US Constitution, the first ten amendments are also called the “Bill of Rights”. They begin by spelling out what I am calling these primary, these solitary rights. They are the right to:
- Free speech;
- Keep and bear arms; and the right to
- Privacy of home.
Notice that, to exercise these rights, I don’t need anyone’s assistance. I can climb up on a stump in my own yard or even in a public square and speak my mind. I am free to do so (just about) any time and any place. (We’ll get to the “just about” in a couple of paragraphs.)
Nor do I need anyone to help me if I choose to keep a firearm or walk around with it.
And finally, others are not allowed to violate the sanctity (privacy) of my home.
I exercise those rights all by myself. You don’t need to do anything to help me, thank you just the same.
But when someone is accused of something and the above rights are rescinded, then a second set, a consequential set of rights, is needed. These secondary rights include the:
- Due process of law;
- Speedy trial;
- Confronting by witnesses, both pro and con;
- Trial by jury; and
- No excessive bail or cruel punishment.
If you are accused of a crime — all crimes are, in essence, depriving someone else of one of these rights so if you claim you are exercising your rights but, in so doing, violate those of someone else, then that’s a “crime” — then this second set of rights is applied so that society can make sure it was correct in removing your primary rights.
You can do what you want as long as you don’t violate someone else’s rights. That’s why I said “just about” earlier — there are limits to exercising your rights and those limits are exceeded when you violate someone else’s rights.
Now, please notice that not only do the primary versus secondary rights come to bear in a specific sequence, they also require different players. That is, the consequential rights all require the assistance of others whereas the first set are entirely up to you. Primary rights protect what I wish to do but, if you want to deny those, then the secondary rights kick in as a consequence.
Consequential rights — requiring the assistance of others — are only there because the rights of the solitary individual may need to be called into question. Others are needed only when my actions are called into question as violating someone else’s rights.
Rights are about actions and safeguards, and they are also about inaction, about choosing to do or not do something.
If I choose to keep silent and not speak out, that is my right.
And if I choose to neglect my health and well-being to the point where my life is at serious risk, is there anything in those primary rights that say you are then obligated to provide me with food and shelter, medical care, transportation, hospitalization, clothing, deodorant, tooth brush, paste and floss?
The point is, an individual’s rights are his or hers to exercise, and they are also theirs to not exercise.
Indeed, it is true that, as long as you don’t violate the rights of others, you can pretty much do what you want. All of our laws are there to protect the rights of individuals and to provide a reasonable, some would say practical, degree of safety in the privacy of our homes. Beyond that, you can do what you want.
And the secondary rights that obligate us to spend public monies for the Police, public defenders, judges and courts are used only when that first set of rights must, by society, be rescinded. As long as your primary rights are intact, the secondary rights aren’t activated.
So, if you choose to violate your own rights but, in so doing, you don’t violate those of others, then the secondary rights don’t kick in. If no one’s rights are violated, the secondaries do nothing.
So, you can choose to keep silent. You have that right.
You can choose to not have a gun in your home. Again, that is a right you can choose to exercise or ignore.
And you have the right to a picture window on the front of your home with no curtains, a personal Facebook page, and a blog where you can expose your otherwise secret thoughts from inside your home.
Those are your rights.
You have the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness, and you have the right not to.
You can choose to starve. You can choose to live under a bridge. And you can choose to forage in the dumpsters for garbage.
But don’t try to tell me you have a right to public housing, free clothing and food stamps. As a society, we may choose to provide those things in some cases and according to specific circumstances, but that’s not a right.
That’s a gift.
But it’s not your primary right, and unless society acts to curtail your primary rights, the secondary rights do not apply.