The situation with the Wisconsin public unions (which is spreading to other states) has brought a lot of heat to the whole issue of “rights” — but very little light. Union members are demanding their “rights,” rallying and committing mayhem to protect their “rights,” and even trying to win nominally non-partisan elections in order to get the law on the side of their “rights.”
Time to go back to the fundamentals.
There is a hierarchy of rights in the United States. At the top of the hierarchy are the rights granted by the Constitution. Yes, I know that it is traditional to refer to those rights as “recognized” by the Constitution as opposed to “granted,” and that is how they are written, but in fact they are granted. The difference is that they can be taken away. It would take a Constitutional amendment to do so, but it is still technically possible that it could happen.
Anyway, the rights enshrined in the United States Constitution are the highest, the most fundamental, and the most potent.
Next up are the rights granted by the constitutions of the several states. Those often echo the federal rights, but in some cases go beyond. My personal favorite is my own New Hampshire’s Article 10:
Government being instituted for the common benefit, protection, and
security, of the whole community, and not for the private interest or
emolument of any one man, family, or class of men; therefore, whenever
the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly
endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people
may, and of right ought to reform the old, or establish a new
government. The doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power, and
oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and
happiness of mankind.
That’s right. In the Granite State, we don’t have a right to revolution, we have a duty. Take that, you other, lesser 49 states.
Anyway, back to being serious. Next up are the rights granted by federal and state laws. These aren’t quite so easy to rule as being “greater” or “lesser” in the hierarchy; they take precedence over each other depending on the particulars — some matters are federal issues, others are state issues. Generally, when there is a conflict, the federal laws prevail — but not always. If you have any questions, consult with a Constitutional scholar — preferably, one other than President Obama.
But here is the key point to remember: a right granted by a law can be taken away by another law. Legislatures can repeal any law that has been passed, even by prior legislatures. The “rights” of these unions — state recognition, collective bargaining, and the like — were all granted by the legislature, and can be withdrawn.
Yes, they have the right of association. They have the right to organize. But they do not have the right to demand to be recognized and accepted as the collective representative of the employees. The states did so — but that did not get graven in stone.
Things got even more interesting when one of the Supreme Court justices in Wisconsin came up for re-election. The liberals found a champion who they thought would rule in their favor on the issue of collective bargaining rights.
Think about that for a moment. Once they lost the fight over whether or not the state legislature would repeal the laws granting them that right, they moved on to arguing that the legislature had no right to repeal that law. And they actually believed that by simply changing a single judge, they could change the question. A fundamental legal question would not be decided based on precedent or existing law or any other objective principle, but purely on the basis of the political leanings of one person who would take an oath to set aside their political leanings and rule strictly on the law and the Constitutions of Wisconsin and the United States.
They actually believe that. And what’s more frightening, they almost won.
Just imagine, for a moment, if their candidate had prevailed. And then actually lived up to her oath and ruled against them.
We are a democratic republic, with majority rule and protections for the minorities. But those protections can be stripped away with a large-enough majority — just like any other rights. Fortunately, our system requires an escalating supermajority as we ascend up the hierarchy of rights, to the point where it would require a Constitutional amendment to dispense with any of the rights in the Constitution.
Here’s an example:
Proposed Amendment XXVIII
Section 1. The words ” respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or” are hereby stricken from the First Amendment to this Constitution.
Section 2. The United States is hereby proclaimed to be a Christian nation, built upon the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Section 3. No citizen shall qualify to hold any public office or trust without first taking an oath affirming their devotion to Jesus Christ and His teachings.
Section 4. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Naturally, as a born-again agnostic, I would oppose such an amendment. Indeed, I vowed eternal hostility to Pat Robertson when, in his 1988 presidential bid, vowed that he would only appoint Christians to government office, and still despise the man to this day.
But if such an Amendment were to be put through the amendment process as outlined in Article V of the Constitution, it would become the law of the land — and our freedom of religion would be no more.
It could happen. It hasn’t, largely because we, the American people, have not chosen to do so. It hasn’t, because enough of us recognize, accept, embrace, and devoutly believe in the Constitutional principles that we will not countenance such a perversion of them — even though, at times, it would have been incredibly convenient and personally advantageous to do so.
We Americans are an exceptional people. We were founded by exceptional people, and we have built upon that exceptional foundation to build the greatest nation on earth. We are such an exceptional nation that more people want to come here and be a part of us, and we are the most welcoming nation for that on earth. And those self-selecting new Americans provide us with a constant flow of fresh blood, fresh genes, fresh ideas, fresh perspectives, fresh experiences.
But we’re hardly perfect. We still take way too much for granted.
And the public-sector unions are giving us a perfect reminder of just what happens when one takes too much for granted.