Anarchy X: The Ninth Amendment


“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

At last we come to what I have to admit is my favorite amendment. If for no other reason, I love this amendment because it is the final answer to every question asked by most of the self-proclaimed “strict constitutionalists” I have met. In most cases these would be people who are looking for excuses to legislate their own petty meanness on the rest of the world, and when you call them on it, they have a standard fall back: their shield, their shelter, their raison d’étre almost universally seems to consist of “where do you find that right in the Constitution?”

Right here. Here it is. In the same way that the justice system lays the burden of proof on the prosecution, and for many of the same reasons, so too is the burden of proof that the government, that we the people have the right to take an action against other people. For my money this is the defining feature of the Bill of Rights, and in many ways the Constitution itself.

It is worth noting that the Ninth Amendment only exists in large part because of the debate about the Bill of Rights itself; by the very notion that there should be no need to specifically enumerate rights that would accrue to the people in a country where the powers of the government would be spelled out quite specifically, and the government would have no further or additional powers beyond those that had been granted to it by the very document that was being amended. It’s a nice thought. Any student of history, classical or modern, political or otherwise, should know it’s also a naïve one. So should anyone who has read Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes.

Call me cynical if you must, but it is my belief born out of study and experience that any human system built for managing people will do two things: grow and accrue more power unto itself. It is not (necessarily) some corrupt plot, it is simply the spontaneous order of human systems. Governments are designed to govern; that is their purpose. They can only do that so long as they are either stable or growing. No system can remain viable if it is stagnant. Therefore, for a government to remain viable it must continue to grow, and the only way for a government to grow is to become more powerful, and thereby more intrusive.

Having delineated specific areas and ways in which the government can’t grow in the first eight amendments, there are two possibilities left. The first is the Federalist assertion of a sort of “gentleman’s agreement” of government, that the rights of the people would be implicitly protected simply by virtue of having delineated the powers the government has. Which has worked so well up to now. The second possibility is finding new and interesting ways to interpret the powers granted by the Constitution, including simply ignoring any rights people might reasonably expect to enjoy, including those grounded in the common law tradition from which the Constitutional government evolved.

The modern upshot of this is widespread. As society has evolved, we have changed in our expectations of what it means to be a part of that society; we have even (thankfully) changed in our attitudes and beliefs about what it means to be human. We have recognized and defended rights along the way that are not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, but that are grounded in the same tradition as the other rights that are. One example is the right to privacy, which is often assailed by the aforementioned “where do you find that right in the Constitution?”

Let me be clear: I believe that all the rights that are defended and provided for by the Constitution, regardless of what philosophical approach you may take to it, derive from the following:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union,
establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common
defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to
ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the
United States of America.

That having been said, I see nothing that runs counter to a right to privacy. On the contrary, privacy in one’s person and effects seems to me to be eminently just, promotes tranquility, adds to the common welfare, and is one of the greatest blessings of liberty I can imagine. If you don’t believe me on that last point, throw wide the settings on your Facebook profile and wait five minutes.

Not everything people claim as a right truly is one; I get that. But to say that it must be spelled out to exist is absurd. The law is and always has been a lagging indicator of the culture at best, and a drag on the culture at worst. Far better to put the burden on those who would control us than on those of us who would be free.

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