Rights vs. Powers – Are they different and if so, how? More importantly, why should you care?

Many of us often use the terms, “rights,” and “powers” interchangeably. But if you take a few minutes to reflect on these terms from our founders perspective, they are clearly not the same.

Start with the Declaration of the Independence: “We hold these truths to be self- evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and pursuit of Happiness … That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Rights are individual rights that we are born with, whether you believe they come from your Creator, the God you worship or are natural rights as proposed by the philosopher, John Locke. Locke argued that people are by “nature free and equal, independent of governments where individuals conditionally transfer some of their rights via a social contract to promote the public good.”

Locke goes on to say that people have the moral authority to reclaim their “conditional or delegated rights” when their government fails to protect their rights. Furthermore, this founding principle of the people to reclaim their delegated rights is articulated in the very next sentence of the Declaration of Independence which reads, “That whenever any Form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying a foundation on such principles and organizing its powers … to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Rights are inherent in the individual and that we may choose to delegate some by social contract. People authorize government through state constitutions, their representatives and then by laws and ordinances. Powers, on the other hand, relate to governments. The powers of government are authorizations from the people to act in their behalf in defined and limited ways. As was stated above, “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The first three Articles of the U.S. Constitution set out the powers of the Legislative, the Executive and the Judicial branches of government and their respective duties. Article One, Section Eight of the U.S. Constitution reads in part. “The Congress shall have the Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, to pay the Debts …”The next two Articles, demarcate the other branches of government and the eighteen limited powers that the federal government is permitted by the sovereign states and the people.

We were reminded in an earlier “Constitutional Corner” that the federal government was a product of the sovereign thirteen states which wisely limited its powers. You may ask … why then does the government today seem to have a constantly expanding universe of unlimited powers in every field of our lives? The short answer is: a runaway bureaucracy which sets its own rules. But we will save the longer answer for another day.

To recap: All rights belong to individuals. The people delegate some of them through a carefully delineated contract. Powers are the authorization by that contract to act on behalf of the people in specific, limited capacities. Governments have no rights, only the powers we the people delegate to them.

Understanding these differences is essential. If you know your rights and know they are not bestowed by government but inherent in you as a human being, you will always know if and when the government is abusing its powers and trying to take your rights away.

“A government big enough to give you everything you want, is big enough to take away everything you have.” –  Thomas Jefferson

Series Navigation<< Yes Really! Religious liberty- protected by the 1st AmendmentWho is most responsible for “separation of powers” in the American Constitution? >>