May 1, 2019
With his claim last week that prisoners have the right to vote, Bernie Sanders is guilty of one of two things: either he has demonstrated a stunning ignorance of rights and their origins, or he has made a cynical calculation to skew a fundamental ethical principle to separate himself from his progressive rivals.
Since he never clarified whether he is referring to human rights or civil rights and since he used the most passionate language in his assertions, most listeners are likely to conclude Sanders was referring to prisoner suffrage as a human right. If so, he is misguided. Suffrage is not a human right; it’s a civil right. They differ in that human rights originate in man’s nature. Human beings come into the world already possessing human or natural rights. Furthermore, they are unalienable; they cannot be separated from us. Tyrants cannot take away our human rights. They may, however, violate them. That is a big distinction. At no time did African slaves lose their human rights. They possessed their natural right to freedom throughout their lives. It was violated, however, from their kidnapping, through their miserable lives, to their merciful deaths.
To clarify through another example, advocates of capital punishment fail to understand this basic truth about human rights. All human beings, even the most anti-social, brutish and repugnant, possess the right to life. They are powerless to remove that right from their nature and so is the state. Vicious humans cannot “forfeit” this right as so many people believe. It is unalienable.
Civil rights are a different animal. They originate not in nature, but in the state. They may be decided by monarchs, autocrats and tyrants (if they are so inclined), or by the people through democratic or republican forms of government. They are granted and may be altered or withheld by the ruling body. Suffrage is one such right. The state declares the right to suffrage and sets limits it as it deems necessary, such as citizenship status or age.
What about America’s denial of women’s right to vote until 1920? Wasn’t that a human rights issue? It became so, but not before correctly applying some moral reasoning. Women do not have the human right to vote. But neither do men. As many nations have demonstrated, people can live perfectly good lives and pursue happiness without voting for their leaders. But for America to grant men suffrage while denying it to women was to claim that women are not equal to men in their humanity. This is, of course, absurd; but it took centuries for the various ruling classes to dismiss their irrational beliefs about women (and blacks) in favor of moral reasoning. In just societies, civil rights are rooted in human rights and America had already recognized that equality is a human right.
Sanders seems to be working from the belief that prisoners have lost their right to vote. They have not. But according to the people, these certain individuals have behaved in an anti-social manner and must reform before they can be accepted back into the body politic. That reformation requires the temporary limitation of the right to free movement and participation in the people’s business. All human rights, with the exception of free movement, ought to be fully secured for prisoners.
Can Bernie Sanders distinguish between human and civil rights? I’m certain he can. In this instance, he has cynically blurred the distinction to separate himself from the progressive cluster. It would be nice if we could get beyond this type of ruse. Maybe this cycle we can find a new type of candidate, one who not only has a nuanced knowledge of history and ideas, but also one who respects the intelligence of the American people.