Vertical vs. horizontal rights

As Americans we love to talk about our “rights.” Children never tire of reminding parents they have a “right to free speech.” During the height of the pandemic shutdown pastors and parishioners both demanded their “right to assemble.” Those accused of a crime demand authorities respect their “right to a speedy trial” or “against self-incrimination.”

Despite the enthusiasm Americans show in pressing their rights, we rarely consider where these claims originate or upon whom they are drawn. In seeking the origin of the various entitlements we enjoy as Americans, we must differentiate between the competing notions of “vertical” and “horizontal” rights.

Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, was concerned with the former. Jefferson said our most fundamental or “inalienable” rights are those passed down, vertically, to us as individuals by the Creator. Jefferson rightly reasoned that because God is unchanging, so are the rights granted by Him.

As Americans, we also enjoy certain horizontal rights. These are the entitlements we create among ourselves by acclimation, through the democratic process. Created by Man, these horizontal rights are necessarily lower and more changeable than are the vertical rights granted by God. Because they are created by Man, these rights are subject to the whims of fifty plus one percent of the voting population. They can be created or destroyed by any majority.

Knowing this, our Founders established our country with a republican form of government. This means that power is distributed between three branches of government, each having certain checks and balances against the others. It further means there are certain [vertical] rights that cannot be legitimately denied by any voting majority. In fact, Jefferson identified the protection of these rights as the reason “governments are instituted among men.”

As we seek to bring order to the current chaos in our nation a respect for, and return to, those vertical rights given by God provides the surest foundation.

Kevin J Ritter, Washington County Commissioner



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