Bill of Rights Protects Property, Not People

by Steven Hill

This article was published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Bellingham Herald and other places

Much hoopla has been made of the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution lately. Conservatives and liberals, columnists and pundits, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Bar Association -- all are celebrating the 200 year anniversary of these sacred scrolls. Many U.S. citizens consider them to be the embodiment of those precious concepts that guarantee our political freedoms and rights. Unfortunately, the hoopla may also have the unintended side effect of stifling criticism and debate about the actual legacy of the Bill of Rights and U.S. Constitution.

The Bill of Rights was written to protect individual rights by specifically prohibiting government intervention in certain areas (the press, speech, religion, assembly, bearing of arms, etc.). This document and the U.S. Constitution were part of a grande r scheme by the wealthy Founding Fathers to create a political system that would support the development of mercantile capitalism in which commercial interests and property owners held sway over kings and royal tyranny. Private property rights, like poli tical rights, were viewed as an extension of the rights of the individual; they were two sides of the same coin, and neither of them were to be tampered with by government.

Consequently, since government interference in private property was largely forbidden, the wealthiest citizens of the new nation -- including not coincidentally the Founding Fathers themselves -- had free rein to use their wealth to buy, manipulate and ot herwise gain control over the democratic process and government itself. This had the net effect of protecting the privileged minority who already owned property, wealth, speech, and the press from the clamoring of the majority who were trying to acquire these same rights and freedoms.

The point is that the Bill of Rights and Constitution were really there to guarantee the property rights of the rich and the rich wanna-be's-- to ensure that the government stayed out of their business. And to do this, it was necessary to protect the ri ghts of speech, press, assembly, etc., because those were the means whereby the commercial and property-owning class argued their ideology and set the political, economic and social agenda of the new nation. The free marketplace was extended to the realm of ideas, but the ideas came predominantly from the white men of property -- the new ruling class.

The political rights and freedoms that common citizens received from the Sacred Scrolls were merely incidental to the real purpose of these documents. If the truth be told, many of the Founding Fathers didn't give a fig about the rights of the common cit izen; they were as fearful of Shay's Rebellion, an insurgency in 1786 of poor farmers and debtors in Massachusetts, as they were of kingly despotism.

Typical of this viewpoint was John Jay, wealthy Founding Father, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and President of the First Continental Congress. He believed that the upper classes "were the better kind of people, by which I mean the people who are orderly and industrious." His theory of government was simple: "The people who own the country ought to govern it." (see Toward an American Revolution by Jerry Fresia).

Two hundred years of frequent practice has only exacerbated such contradictions and inequities, not diminished them. Today, thanks to the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, economic power is the primary means of acquiring political power; and poli tical power has become the primary means of protecting economic power. Wealthy corporations and individuals wield a disproportionate amount of political power on national, state and local levels. And just like in 1792, the government is still dominated by white men of property who make sure the government stays out of their business. It is no coincidence that U.S. Senators, Presidents and many U.S. Representatives are members of the Millionaires Club; in this Two Party State, voters normally have a cho ice between one millionaire or another. Practically speaking, common people have little access to political power.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 33.6 million United States citizens -- 13.5% of our population -- now live in poverty. Many of these are children. What about the right to have a home? The right to eat? The right to decent medical care? The righ t of women to walk safely down the street at night or to feel safe in their homes? Why aren't these basic needs considered as rights, just like the right to a free press, or to bear arms?

Meanwhile, women still only comprise 11% of our elected bodies, even after the so-called "Year of the Woman." Racial minorities are similarly underrepresented, and both groups earn comparably lower wages than their white male counterparts. Surely if the Bill of Rights and U.S. Constitution were such great documents, we would have achieved more equality in 200 years time!

These inequalities are a direct result of -- not in spite of, but because of -- the priority given by the Bill of Rights and U.S. Constitution to protect the private property of rich individuals and wealthy corporations over basic human rights. As the ne w kings and aristocracy accumulate their treasure chests and gain control over the political process, the disparity in power between rich and poor continues to widen. In the post-World War II era, what has kept this disparity from exploding all over our society is the fact that the United States emerged victorious from World War II, allowing Uncle Sam to exploit other countries and enrich itself. Some of this booty then was permitted by the corporate aristocracy to "trickle down" to the lower classes, c reating a relatively large, materialist middle class that, ironically, has become the envy of the world.

However, in recent years, that trickle down has nearly dried up. In the face of renewed international competition, the economic future of more and more Americans is increasingly uncertain, even as the economic pie produces more and more billionaires and millionaires.

At the dawn of the twenty first century, the United States is hardly an example that Russia or Eastern Europe or the Third World may emulate. The United States has only 6% of the world's population, yet we consume 35-45% of the world's resources. Elemen tary mathematics reveal that the world cannot afford too many countries that consume six times its fair share.

Our Constitution and Bill of Rights are in need of substantial revision and amendment if our nation is to fulfill its promises of freedom and democracy that we advertise to the rest of the world. If we are to preserve what's left of our democracy, we nee d an Economic Bill of Rights for both workers and communities that counter-balances the private property rights of corporations and wealthy individuals.

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