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“Please, may I…?” – Part I

The word inalienable (a.k.a. unalienable) has numerous synonyms: unchallengeable, absolute, immutable, unassailable, incontrovertible, indisputable, and undeniable are just a few. This is the word Thomas Jefferson chose to describe the rights of all mankind in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.

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.

Because this phrase has become so familiar to many of us who have read and revered these truths for a lifetime, they tend to become somewhat of a cliché devoid of the rich meaning and implications that are still applicable in measuring the degree to which modern government accomplishes its purpose. First, men have certain rights which are absolute. Second, these absolute rights are not bestowed by government but endowed by their Creator. Third, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are just three among other inalienable rights. And fourth, these inalienable rights are incapable of being alienated, surrendered, transferred, or altered.

In 1789, the first ten Amendments to the Constitution of the new republic memorialized several of these inalienable rights. The purpose of the Bill of Rights (the Amendments) is found in its Preamble. Congress wished to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers by proposing a Bill of Rights that would add “further declaratory and restrictive clauses” to the Constitution to improve public confidence in government. In other words, the Congress was asking the various states to ratify these Amendments to further restrict governmental abuse and thereby increase confidence in government. The Amendments described several of these rights and their associated freedoms.

Freedom or privilege?

Timothy Sandefur’s book The Permission Society describes how the ruling class has turned America’s constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms into privileges. Sandefur says that to be free means that one is able to make his own decisions, but Sandefur emphasized that such freedom did not mean that one had a right to do whatever he pleases regardless of the harm caused others. Rather, freedom meant that a person was able to follow his own will and choices with regard to his person, actions, possessions, and property without having to obey the arbitrary and rapacious will of others.[1]

To the degree that we must ask someone else to let us act, we do not have rights but privileges – licenses that are granted, on limited term, from someone who stands above us.[2] [emphasis added]

When the citizens of a free society reach a point (or a degree) that their right to act according to their own will and choices is outweighed by the privileges granted by their government and its complicit bureaucracies, then it is no longer a free society but a permission society. In such a society the citizen no longer boldly proclaims “I will…” but with hat in hand and eyes downcast, he shuffles up to his betters and mumbles “Please, may I…?”

This change of condition does not happen all at once in a free society. Rather, it occurs much the same way as a cancer attacks the body. The symptoms are minor at first but grow to the point of consciousness that something is not right in the body. In the early stages of moving from a free society to a permission society, the social planners provide soothing promises and placebos to soften the minor discomforts and inconveniences of life in a permission society. But in time as a society surrenders ever greater amounts of its freedom, the will to act by citizens holding the cherished but distant memory of freedom becomes too weak to resist their ever growing bondage to the rulers of the permission society. A free society can be saved only by radical surgery to remove the spreading cancer of the social planners and their bag of privileges to be bestowed to the inmates of the permission society.

Government fails when it does not accomplish the purpose for which it was instituted—to secure the inalienable rights of its citizens. In this two part series, we shall look at how the American government over the last century has eroded this confidence in government by not only failing to secure these inalienable rights but which has aggressively abused those rights for its own purposes. Specifically, we shall look at those inalienable rights associated with property which have been greatly abused by a heavy-handed, oppressive government and its supporting bureaucracy.

The inalienable right of property

We begin with a quote from an address by Abraham Lincoln to the New York Workingmen’s Democratic Republican Association.

Property is the fruit of labor. Property is desirable, is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence…I take it that it is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. Some will get wealthy. I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good.[3]

Lincoln’s short homily on the value of property as a positive good and an encourager to industry and enterprise is important. Lincoln’s words regarding property are admirable but utilitarian by nature. Those words do not rise to the status of an inalienable right as defined by the Constitution. The inalienable right to have and use one’s property as he desires is more than something with a calculable valuable that can be weighed in the balances against some competing thing.

Richard M. Weaver wrote that, “Almost every trend of the day points to an identification of right with the purpose of the state and that, in turn, with the utilitarian greatest material happiness for the greatest number.” Weaver argues that private property is the last metaphysical right remaining because it does not depend on some measure of social usefulness that can be bent to the greatest good for the greatest number. State control of the material elements of a society positions it to allow the denial of freedom, but private property and personal income stand as a bulwark and provides a “…sanctuary against pagan statism.”[4] The biblical worldview which was the foundation of Western civilization led to boundaries on the power of the state. As a result the power of government to dictate or interfere with private transactions was limited which supported and encouraged economic freedom.[5]

Beginning of the permission society

Prior to 1936, the U.S. Supreme Court held that:

The preservation of property…is a primary object of the social compact…The legislature, therefore, had no authority to make an act divesting one citizen of his freehold, and vesting it in another, without a just compensation. It is inconsistent with the principles of reason, justice and moral rectitude; it is incompatible with the comfort, peace and happiness of mankind; it is contrary to the principles of social alliance in every free government; and lastly, it is contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution.[6]

Beginning in 1936, the Supreme Court’s liberal interpretations of the “general welfare” clause of the Constitution have dramatically enlarged the powers of the federal government and encroached on fundamental property rights through its welfare programs.[7] This liberal interpretation significantly expanded what the legislature could do with regard to providing for the “general welfare” of the United States.

The debate as to the meaning of the “general welfare” clause began with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and continues until the present day. Rather than continue the argument, let us evaluate the outcome of the distortion of the meaning of the “general welfare” clause which began in the 1930s. The results of this new liberal interpretation have caused an unprecedented assault on right of private property through:

• Eminent domain laws
• Diminution of the right of contract and obligations thereunder
• Oppressive income and property tax systems
• Onerous limitations on the possession and use of property through regulation[8]

It is in this last area of limitations on the possession and use of private property that the “Please, may I…?” society has evolved and replaced freedom with privileges. This assault on private property occurs through excessive governmental regulation which is fostered by a pervasive humanistic worldview. Humanism is intrinsically socialistic. A socialistic government allows its humanist elite to level society by their attempts to parcel out the greatest material happiness for the greatest number. This is accomplished through an onerous regulatory process which is the skeletal structure of all socialistic governments.[9] One example of this monolithic regulatory umbrella is found in Humanist Manifesto II as it proposes to create an international authority to control the environment and population growth.

…the door is open to alternative economic systems…The world community must engage in cooperative planning concerning the use of rapidly depleting resources. The planet earth must be considered a single ecosystem. Ecological damage, resource depletion, and excessive population growth must be checked by international concord.[10] [emphasis in original]

Yet, at the same time, the Manifesto self-righteously states that, “…bureaucratic structures should be held to a minimum. People are more important than…regulations.” In spite of these platitudes, calls for minimal regulations are disingenuous for humanists know that cooperative planning is code for regulation, and socialistically-oriented societies require massive amounts of regulation.[11]

In both Part I and II of these articles, our discussion is limited to loss of the inalienable right of private property through regulation in which one’s ownership and use of his or her property is no longer an inalienable right but a privilege to be dispensed by government. Such regulation has allowed unjust confiscation of private property without due compensation, limitations on the use of one’s property (which is in effect a taking of private property), and devaluation of private property through regulatory excesses. In Part II, we shall look at the two principal means by which government may regulate the actions of people and the consequences of each. One supports freedom and the other champions privilege.

Larry G. Johnson


[1]Timothy Sandefur, The Permission Society, (New York, London: Encounter Books, 2016), p. ix.
[2] Ibid.
[3] W. Cleon Skousen, The 5000 Year Leap, ( National Center for Constitutional Studies, 1981), p. 173.
[4] Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, (Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 131, 134-135.
[5] M. Stanton Evans, The Theme Is Freedom, (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1994), pp. 299-300.
[6] Skousen, The 5000 Year Leap, pp. 173-176.
[7] Ibid., p. 173.
[8] Larry G. Johnson, Ye shall be as gods – Humanism & Christianity – The Battle for Supremacy in the American Cultural Vision, (Owasso, Oklahoma: Anvil House Publishers, 2011), p. 249.
[9] Ibid., p. 254.
[10] Paul Kurtz, ed., Humanist Manifestos I & II, (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1973), p. 21.
[11] Johnson, Ye shall be as gods, p. 255.

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