CFFAD

Ask CFFAD: Why Use the Constitution to Protect Rights?

Bill of Rights - Library of Congress

Our first ever question for Ask CFFAD is this: “Why Use the Constitution to Protect Rights?” 

If our rights weren’t protected we would live in a dramatically different society. Respecting each others’ rights may seem like common sense fairness, but the truth is people can’t always be trusted to share power, nor to give it up. As Sir John Dalberg-Acton said “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  

Without protected rights, you might not be allowed to vote or run for office if you wanted to. Even if you could, elections would not be free and fair because the government could harass its opponents in all sorts of ways.  Here are some examples.  It might be illegal or very difficult to criticize the government. Worshipping in the wrong religion or disrespecting religious authorities might get you sent to prison. The government would be able to search and confiscate your property for no reason at all. You could be wrongfully charged with a crime, and you might have an unfair trial that never gets fully resolved. 

But why do we need a constitution to protect these rights?  One answer is that constitutions elevate the importance of our political and civil rights because constitutions are the supreme law of the land. Constitutions are generally harder to change than laws passed by legislatures. In fact, the U.S. Constitution is one of the hardest to change in the world. 

Even so, from its very beginning, the U.S. Constitution has been amended to expand upon our rights many times. Important examples include the Bill of Rights, the abolition of slavery, birthright citizenship, and voting rights for everyone of age regardless of racialized distinctions, sex, or tax compliance status.
Another answer is that constitution act as a social contract. While a regular contract is binding only between business partners, a social contract binds each of us, and our government. Unlike a regular contract, which typically deals with goods, services, and money, a social contract deals with the rights and duties that form the backbone of our society.  Our social contract will stand so long as we, and the politicians we elect to run our government, are invested in the system as it is and want to continue receiving benefits from it.

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