A 2001 interview of Sen. Barack Obama saying some pretty remarkable things about what he sees as the inadequacy of our Constitution has recently come to light. They go to the core of what this election is about and, even more fundamentally, what America is and may be.
It's perhaps good to remember first what makes America different from other countries. Unlike in other places that are defined by geography and ancestry, to be an American comes from subscribing to a particular set of ideas that are very, very different from those held in much of the rest of the world.
It doesn't matter where you are born or what race or ethnicity you are—anyone can become an American.
At the root of the American idea are the truths that our founders described as "self-evident" but that many people first take for granted and then fail to defend: that this country is based on faith in the uniqueness and capacity for self-determination of each individual.
That central idea came from a certainty that we were created by "nature's God" and that God—not government—had endowed each of us with rights, first among which were life, liberty, and property, the combination of which allowed the pursuit—but no guarantee—of happiness. (It is precisely because the power of this argument was understood that those who advocated slavery denied the full humanity of slaves.)
That understanding led them to create for the first time in history a government built out of and respecting these universal rights of man, a government that was "of, by, and for" the people, not the other way around. And it also led them to craft our Bill of Rights.
Obama in his interview disparages the Constitution as merely "a charter of negative liberties. It says what the states can't do to you. Says what the federal government can't do to you but doesn't say what the federal government or state government must do on your behalf." He believes—and he's right—that changing this is the way to bring about "redistributive change."
But the founders were deeply purposeful and intellectually coherent in their definition of rights. Classically, rights are the lowest, most basic universal claims. Think of them as the ground rules for everyone, weak and strong, to respect each other and get on.
Their important characteristics are these: First, they exist outside of us, coming from God or nature, not government, and so are independent of the whims of government and cannot be either manufactured or, of even greater concern, extinguished when they get in the way of someone powerful. No one has to give us the ability to pursue happiness; it comes from within ourselves.
Second, they are timeless, applying regardless of whether it's 200 years ago or a thousand years in the future—governments can't use the excuse "well, that was then, but times have changed."
Third, they are universal, applying to everyone, not just some preferred subset.
And fourth, they are noncoercive, or negative: They delineate what others cannot deprive you of without due process of law. And they prevent you from being coerced.
The founders were not coldhearted. The very understanding of rights as the lowest obligation means that there are also higher obligations: You can't force someone to be a good Samaritan, but you can expect it of anyone decent. Those who give, give of their free will and consensually, not because the government forces it.
Rights don't exist in a vacuum; they carry corollary responsibilities that fall on the citizens who enjoy those rights. That understanding is precisely why volunteerism has such a strong tradition in this country; we knew caring for our neighbor was our responsibility as citizens, not the government's.
But Obama, like many leftists before him, is unhappy with the constraints of our Constitution. He wants to turn voluntary responsibilities and moral obligations that citizens choose to undertake into so-called affirmative rights. That idea is sugarcoated as "what the government must do on your behalf." But that sort of thinking—that government should do it—is precisely what saps volunteerism and helps explain why both the Obamas' and the Bidens' charitable contributions are so pitiful.