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Did freedom or government come first?

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By Rob Witwer

I recently overheard a conversation that went something like this: “Where does the right to free speech come from?” “The right to free speech,” came the reply, “was given to us by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
Is that accurate? Would our founders have agreed with that formulation? Take a closer look at the language of the First amendment itself: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.”
Does that sound to you like a right is being granted out of thin air? Or is the language more in line with the idea that freedom of speech pre-existed government, and that the First Amendment is there to ensure the federal government never takes any action to abridge it?
The Constitution, especially its first 10 amendments, isn’t framed in terms of government magnanimously giving its citizens rights and privileges. Rather, it’s written in the language of limitation ­— limitation on the powers of government.
This is philosophically consistent with the grounds for forming a federal government in the first place.
In the Declaration of Independence, our founders said: “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 the pursuit of Happiness.”
In other words, simply by virtue of being a person, you have rights. Government didn’t create those rights. And whether you believe they were endowed by God or have some humanistic source, they pre-exist not only the Constitution, but the institution of government itself.
Why does this matter?  I believe the way we understand the role of government vis-à-vis freedom has profound consequences. If freedom is pre-eminent, we will live in one kind of country. If government is pre-eminent, we will live in another.
If we think that freedom is a gift from government, we’ll be more accepting of government’s intrusion into our liberties. But if we believe that freedom pre-exists government, we’ll resist the growth of government unless it’s absolutely necessary to preserve the common good.
In many ways, this simple matter of philosophical orientation rests at the heart of many of the great debates taking place right now.
Which side are you on?

Rob Witwer is a former member of the state House and co-author of “The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care.”