Happy birthday to the Bill of Rights! These 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified by the states on Dec. 15, 1791. The Anti-Federalists insisted that the Constitution must contain an enumeration of protection for some of the most important rights, to help ensure that the federal government didn’t overstep its bounds by violating them. The Bill of Rights remains among the most powerful and inspiring statements of individual liberty in the history of the United States.
Of course, politicians began violating the Bill of Rights not long after it was adopted, and it has been shredded by every ruling party whenever it suits their political purposes. Whether Republicans, Democrats, Federalists, or Whigs, all have been guilty — except Libertarians. The Libertarian Party Platform and Statement of Principles were drafted to make it clear that we take the Bill of Rights seriously — along with innumerable other rights not listed there.
It’s worth noting that most of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights are “negative” rights. They each restrict the power of government from compelling the people in some way. Freedom of speech, for instance, doesn’t cost anything to produce. Apart from legal rights like jury trials, the Bill of Rights contains no other “positive” rights, which promise some kind of tangible outcome. There is no “right” to free health care or education, for instance, which would, by definition, impose a cost on somebody else to provide.
First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Despite these words, for decades many government schools required children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, including the phrase “one nation under God,” every day. Now some of those same government schools prohibit references to God in classrooms and speeches.
Most Americans are free to print, broadcast, or say anything they want unless they have a message that is embarrassing or incriminating to politicians or bureaucrats. More than ever before, the U.S. government prosecutes those who expose official wrongdoing by becoming whistleblowers or courageous journalists like Edward Snowden or Julian Assange.
One can still peaceably assemble and petition for a redress of grievances, but not in front of the White House or anywhere that politicians can actually see you, unless you get a permit far enough in advance that politicians can avoid you and avert their sensitive eyes.
Libertarians support the First Amendment all the time, not just when it’s convenient for politicians.
Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
This right to bear arms is routinely disparaged or misinterpreted by both Democrats and Republicans The Second Amendment was not written to protect getting a permit to shoot wild game with muskets; it was meant to grant people the ability to resist tyranny. In the words of the Declaration of Independence, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”
The mass murders committed by Adolph Hitler, Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and many other tyrants add up to 262 million innocent people who were killed by their own governments in the 20th century, according to the tally of Dr. R.J. Rummel of the University of Hawaii. Rummel coined the term “democide” to describe intentional killings committed by government officials against their own people. It’s safe to say that the vast majority of these victims were disarmed before they were killed.
Libertarians realize that the Second Amendment is not about shooting Bambi. It is ultimately a crucial defense against being assaulted or killed, whether by individual criminals or by oppressive governments.
Third Amendment: “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”
Although this doesn’t seem applicable to the modern world, it was used to sue the New York state government in a military housing case as recently as 1982. The Third Amendment remains an important recognition of private property.
Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
The protections outlined in the Fourth Amendment have been gutted perhaps more than any other. Civil asset forfeiture effectively enables police to engage in legalized highway robbery. At the federal level alone, there are 17 known intelligence agencies that claim an array of surveillance powers, such as listening to our conversations, reading our texts and emails, and otherwise spying on us at will.
Both Republicans and Democrats actively support this police-state apparatus and congressional votes are nearly unanimous when they expand and fund the surveillance powers of these intelligence agencies. Libertarians, on the other hand, stand firm in calling for a complete halt to civil asset forfeiture and all forms of spying on Americans without a real warrant, which should be difficult to obtain.
Fifth Amendment: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
Today, arbitrary regulations routinely deprive landowners of any productive use of their land, effectively taking away the value of property without just compensation. From local zoning laws to state and federal environmental restrictions, property rights are undermined by nearly every government jurisdiction.
Libertarians have a simple solution to this continually growing mass of restrictive regulations: If something doesn’t hurt people, doesn’t steal from people, and isn’t fraudulent, then don’t regulate it.
Sixth Amendment: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”
Speedy trials are rendered nearly impossible by the burgeoning number of “crimes” on the books. The vast majority of them, like those prohibiting drugs and other forms of vice, are consensual. There has been such a proliferation of unknown laws and regulations that most of us are inadvertently guilty of something, explained civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate in his book Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.
When nearly everyone violates the law, police can arbitrarily target anyone they don’t like. Prosecutors wind up intimidating innocent people into accepting plea bargains in order to avoid or lessen prison time. Meanwhile, judges do everything they can to prevent jury nullification, which allows juries to declare defendants innocent when they believe the law in that case was unjustified.
Elected Libertarians would repeal consensual crime laws. If nobody was hurt, nothing was stolen, and no contracts were violated, there should be no crime. Until the day consensual crime laws are repealed, Libertarians support jury nullification for unjust laws in cases at trial. The United States imprisons about four times the percentage of its population that Europe does. Focusing police and prosecutor efforts on actual crimes with victims, rather than consensual crimes, would improve the safety and security of the public while dramatically reducing the cost of the judicial system.
Seventh Amendment: “In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”
Although the Bill of Rights originally restricted only the federal government’s power, the 14th Amendment eventually incorporated these amendments to restrict state power as well. All except for the Seventh Amendment, that is, which has never been applied to state governments. Perhaps it should be.
Eighth Amendment: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
Capital punishment is cruel and unusual. Libertarians would abolish it not only for this constitutional reason, but also because proof of guilt can be uncertain — and many people have eventually been found innocent after years of imprisonment, as evidentiary standards are refined and improved over time. Even considering only practicalities, the costs of execution exceed those of life imprisonment.
Ninth Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
Perhaps the single most important sentence in the Constitution, the Ninth Amendment reiterates that individual rights are inherent in human beings, not granted by the government. Although the Constitution lists some important rights, individuals have far more rights than can be contained in any document.
Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
This is an important reminder that the Constitution grants a specific, limited number of powers to federal government and that smaller jurisdictions and the people themselves retain all other power. Unfortunately, in practice the Tenth Amendment has been gutted by the Supreme Court’s expansive interpretation of the Commerce Clause, allowing the federal government to claim a vast array of powers not listed within the Constitution.
Libertarians argue that the worst excesses of the federal government would be eliminated if the courts started taking the Tenth Amendment seriously again.
“The Bill of Rights is one of the most powerful, inspiring statements about the principles of individual liberty and limited government in history,” said Libertarian National Committee Representative Dr. James Lark. “When Americans are asked about the aspects of America that make them most proud, frequently their answers include the rights of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly. The common element of these answers is individual liberty and freedom from government interference.”