01 June 2010

My Constitution Collection Grows

Back from the long weekend, I've found another copy of the U.S. Constitution in the mail. Compared to the deluxe offering from the Cato Institute, this enticement from the American Civil Liberties Union is a no-frills affair. It looks more like a flier than a little bound book, and it doesn't come with any bonus materials like the Declaration of Independence or a preface. That may reflect an ACLU disagreement with Cato on the significance of the Declaration as a guide to the Constitution, but it may also reflect a less ambitious production plan.

The coincidence of both groups sending me Constitution booklets set me thinking. The ACLU and the Cato Institute are both dedicated to preserving civil liberties, but are not perceived as allies. Like most libertarian entities, Cato is seen as part of the "right," while rightists themselves have long sought to isolate the ACLU on the "left" due to its defense of "un-American" opinion. Each group illustrates the apparent selectivity of any civil-libertarian agenda. The ACLU is historically identified with defending expressions of unpopular opinion from Nazism to Communism. For the Union, it would seem, the civil liberty par excellence is the right of conscience to free expression. For Cato, like most groups that are "libertarian" rather than "civil libertarian," that aspect of personal liberty most in need of defense is the right to accumulate or dispose of property without unconstitutional interference from the state. It may be a general rule that "civil libertarians" like the ACLU are most concerned with individuals' rights within the public sphere, while Cato-style just-plain "libertarians" are most concerned with protecting a private sphere of property from public intrusion.

There are points where Cato and the ACLU converge. Both groups have fought against war-on-terror expansions of government surveillance and other infringements on privacy justified by national security. They appear to agree on an inherent right of individuals not to be regarded as objects of suspicion without the state showing cause beforehand. Other points of agreement are obscured by differences in emphasis. The ACLU, for instance, makes a big deal out of defending the nation against assaults on the Jeffersonian "wall of separation" between church and state, or what their literature describes as attempts to impose particular religious or moral values on the entire nation. A search of Cato's online archives reveals repeated endorsements of separation, but the institute doesn't make a big deal of this point in their solicitations, perhaps because it might appear inconsistent with their assigned position on the "right," or because it might alienate potential donors from that side. On the other hand, the ACLU appears unconcerned about abuses of eminent domain and other threats of expanded state power over property that worry Cato so much. This may be because such matters fall outside the ACLU's presumed zone of "civil liberty," but that fact itself may betray an indifference to property rights allegedly characteristic of "left" libertarians.

Just writing this has made me think more about the term "civil libertarian." I see the term used as a general description of the opposition to expanded national-security powers; depending on the context it almost becomes a pejorative in its invocation of the dreaded ACLU for rightist readers. You'd think a "civil libertarian" would be someone who believes in and fights for "civil rights," but "civil rights" itself remains a complicated issue, at least in the minds of people like Rand Paul who struggle to weigh the rights of consumers to service against those of property owners to refuse service. Are property rights civil rights? If a government denied property rights to people on a discriminatory basis, most people would equate property rights with civil rights. Paul believes the government was right to abolish discriminatory laws; he'd deem it a civil right for a person to be immune from discrimination based on race, gender, etc. Civil rights in general might best be defined as people's rights relating to the state, but what of our rights relating to each other? Do we have rights to demand services from one another, or obligations to serve each other? Are those "civil" rights? As the controversy over Paul's recent comments reveals, most Americans' understanding of "civil rights" extends to interpersonal or commercial relations, but not everyone agrees on that point. Liberty and "civil liberty" alike are constantly contested as people claim causes to expand or contract them. We should understand that when people come at us waving copies of the Constitution and crying "Liberty!" Our question shouldn't be whether they believe in liberty or not, but what kind of liberty, or how much? Then you may know where someone stands on something.

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