here to read
any of the commentaries in this series.
places where we are not already protected, or where we have been
shown to be vulnerable over the last eight years or before, legislation
and amendments can be used to expand our existing rights and establish
entirely new ones. All of our rights, new and old, should be properly
protected by placing violations of them in the criminal code.
The Right to Vote
a right to vote only surprises people who believe we already have
it. Perhaps the most important as well as the least controversial
right that we could create is one that Congressman Jesse Jackson
Jr. has long advocated for: the individual national right to vote
(allowing the creation of national uniform standards for elections).
I would add as well the right to directly elect the president, vice
president, and all other elected officials, and to have one’s vote
publicly and locally counted in a manner that can be repeated and
verified if questioned (effectively requiring hand-counted paper
ballots), and the right to paid time off work to vote on election
day, which would be made a national holiday or scheduled on a weekend.
I would also propose establishing and enforcing serious criminal
penalties for election fraud. I’ll take up the issues of election
fraud and voting rights at more length later in this book.
think we should consider as well a less orthodox proposal, namely
the right to be a candidate for elected office. Even if we all had
the full and verifiable and unencumbered right to vote, our democracy
would remain a weak one as long as only the extremely wealthy and
those willing to take payments from the wealthy are able to credibly
compete for elected office. We should have a right to know that
the candidates in our elections are not corrupted by bribes (including
the currently legal bribes we euphemistically call “contributions”),
and the right to ourselves be candidates in more than a nominal
sense unless prevented by something other than our wealth and income.
I’ll take up below some of the policies that might be implemented
to protect this right.
Right to Expanded Magna Carta Protections
need to establish strict protection from arbitrary arrest, detention,
exile, or enforced disappearance, and from all forms of slavery
and forced labor, with criminal penalties for violators and compensation
for victims. We need to strengthen our right against unreasonable
search and seizure in this electronic age, amending the Constitution
and/or replacing FISA with legislation that effectively protects
us, creates criminal penalties for violators, and compensates victims.
We should place in the Constitution new language to strictly ban
all torture, all cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment,
rendition, medical or scientific experimentation on humans without
their consent, and state executions. We should create criminal penalties
for violators and compensation for victims.
need to strengthen or create some additional rights for those who
find themselves within our criminal justice system, including the
right to presumption of innocence until proven guilty of a crime,
the right to be told the charges against you at the time of your
arrest, the right not to be detained without being arrested and
charged, the right to obtain and to use in court a videotape of
any relevant interrogations or confessions, the right of the accused
to be detained separately from those already convicted, the right
of juveniles to be detained separately from adults, the right not
to be imprisoned for inability to fulfill a contract, the right
to a penal system aimed at reformation and social rehabilitation,
and the right to compensation for false conviction and punishment.
The United States currently locks up a greater percentage of its
citizens than any other nation, a heavy-handed and backward approach
to social problems that mirrors our approach to foreign policy.
Protecting innocents from the imprisonment onslaught and redirecting
imprisonment to include rehabilitation, education, and preparation
for civic participation are essential to undoing this damage.
refer to all of the above as Magna Carta protections because I see
them as part of that living tradition. Peter Linebaugh’s recent
book, The Magna Carta Manifesto, documents the meaning of
the Magna Carta down through the centuries, prominent in that meaning
being the tradition established by the Magna Carta that no man would
be above the law, that no man would sit in judgment of himself,
that no one would be tried or imprisoned without due process including
judgment by a jury of peers.
Great Charter of Liberties was originally produced together with
the Charter of the Forest, and these two documents were paired together
for centuries before one of them was forgotten and the other was
reinterpreted as the sacred text of private property, capitalism,
God, and empire. The Charter of the Forest protects the rights of
commoners to “commoning.” That’s a verb that encompasses the rights
to use and maintain forests and wild places, to allow livestock
to forage, and to gather wood, berries, mushrooms, and water. Linebaugh
tells a global story of the loss of commons, of the enclosing of
public spaces, of the creation of poverty and criminality, and of
the Magna Carta as a manifesto against privatization. It strikes
me as important right now that we recognize the power that the rule
of law has had for good and its intimate ties to social as well
as formal justice. Does Eric Holder—do the rest of us—want to oversee
the demise of this tradition or its expansion and enhancement?
Equal Rights for All
need, at long last, to place in our Constitution comprehensive equal
rights for women, including the right to equal pay for equal work.
We need comprehensive rights for all children, including the right
to have their interests given primary consideration in public actions
that concern them, and a ban on harmful child labor. We need a right
to special care and assistance for mothers, fathers, and children,
including paid maternal and family leave. We need these things much
more than we need to hear anyone screaming about “family values”!
And we need the Constitution to establish a right against any unfair
discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender, sexual identity,
language, religion or lack thereof, political or other opinion,
national or social origin, property, birth, citizenship, or other
status, including that of a migrant worker.
history is one of slowly expanding the group of people entitled
to civil rights, breaking down barriers of wealth, race, sex, and
age. But what about species? Although we’ve criminalized cruelty
to animals in some cases, we’ve never dared to scandalize the philosophers
by giving rights to nonhumans. I’m not proposing that we include
dogs and pigs and insects in our Constitution as individuals. I
don’t think they have much more place there than do corporations,
which have falsely claimed constitutional rights. But we might want
to consider giving our environment as a whole a right to survive.
course we could simply give humans a right to a clean, safe and
sustainable environment, and I think we probably should. But that’s
not the only possible solution. In September 2008, Ecuador created
a new Constitution by a two-thirds public vote that included some
changes that we might want to avoid (such as aggrandized executive
power) and others we might want to consider, such as the recognition
of legally enforceable rights of nature or ecosystem. The new Constitution
provides nature the “right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate
its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution”
and mandates that the government take “precaution and restriction
measures in all the activities that can lead to the extinction of
species, the destruction of the ecosystems or the permanent alteration
of the natural cycles.” Of course, an American document couldn’t
mention evolution until Americans were properly educated, but the
rest of the language here might be useful. While an ecosystem can’t
sue on its own behalf over violation of its rights, people can do
so for it.
Right to Education, Housing, and Health Care
help give every child a chance and to foster young talent and innovation,
America should guarantee the right to public education of equal
high quality from preschool through college. We should have a right
to decent, safe, sanitary and affordable housing. We should have
a right to health care of equal high quality. These are things that
ought not to be privileges for the wealthy but things to which we
all have adequate access, in other words: rights.
also need basic rights related to work and income established at
the level of our Constitution. These should include the right to
form and join a labor union and the right to strike, the right to
employment (not to be confused with antilabor laws that go by the
misleading name “right to work”), and the right to a living wage—that
is to say, just and favorable remuneration for work ensuring for
the worker and their family an existence worthy of human dignity,
and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
We should have the right to a reasonable limitation of working hours
and to periodic paid holidays. Not all of this will be acceptable
to the US Chamber of Commerce, but most of it will make sense to
Right to Basic Welfare
would like to offer two additional proposals that might be somewhat
controversial, one ensuring the basic welfare (food and shelter)
of each individual whether or not employed and working, the other
ensuring some limitation on the division of society into an overclass
of super-wealthy families and everyone else.
basic income guarantee, or BIG as it’s known to the activists and
academics who make up the US Basic Income Guarantee Network, is
a government-ensured guarantee that no one’s income will fall below
the level necessary to meet their most basic needs for any reason,
even if they are not working and earning the living wage that I
(but not all supporters of a BIG) would also mandate.
would a basic income guarantee work? Each month, every adult would
receive a check from the government for the exact same amount. These
checks, notes the Citizen Policies Institute, would be “large enough
to meet basic costs of food and shelter . . . but not so large as
to undermine incentives to work, earn, save, and invest.” Some checks
would be wasted on awesomely affluent Americans who have absolutely
no financial worries. But there would be no need for a bureaucracy
to determine who should receive the checks, and no stigma would
attach to receiving them. That some small percentage of people would
not work cannot be considered a fatal flaw in the BIG idea, not
in a country where we already
have a significant percentage of people not working, including those
unable to work, those with no need to work and no desire to, those
searching for work, those who have given up on searching for work,
those who have calculated that they would spend more on childcare
than they would earn if they took a job, those who are behind bars
as a result of crimes that tend to increase with unemployment and
poverty, and those working part-time who want full-time jobs. There
are also many working full-time or more who would prefer to work
part-time and train for other work if they could afford to. Surely
anyone’s displeasure with people receiving a basic income without
working should not outweigh their displeasure with the current state
of affairs in which tens of millions of Americans, including children,
live in poverty. The Paulson’s Plunder “bailouts” gave away, to
some very wealthy people, far more money than would be required
for a BIG, so perhaps it’s best to think of a BIG as a real bailout
for everyone, one that would actually stimulate the economy.
past thirty years have seen tremendous growth in the United States
in productivity and wealth, and yet we don’t all seem very appreciative.
In fact, as Yale political scientist Robert Lane has documented,
surveys have found Americans’ assessment of their level of happiness
declining significantly.10 The United States contains
4.5 percent of the world’s population and spends 42 percent of the
world’s health care expenses, and yet Americans are less healthy
than the residents of nearly every other wealthy nation and a few
poor ones as well, as documented by Dr. Stephen Bezruchka of the
University of Washington.11 What’s going on? We spend
more on criminal justice and have more crime. How can that be? We’re
richer and have more poverty. Why is that?
journalist Sam Pizzigati thinks he has a solution to these riddles.12
In his recent book, Greed and Good, Pizzigati focuses on
the extreme increase in inequality that the United States has seen
over the past generation. The Federal Reserve Board has documented
gains by America’s wealthiest 1 percent of more than $2 trillion
more than everyone in America’s bottom 90 percent combined. We are
now the most unequal wealthy nation on earth, and have reversed
the relationship we had to Europe when the founders of this country
rejected aristocracy. Today Europeans come to the United States
to marvel at the excesses of wealth beside shameful poverty. Perhaps
it’s time for a right to some minimal level of equality.
of us would like to lift up those at the bottom. Few of us want
to bring down those at the top. Pizzigati argues that you cannot
do one without the other, because the super-wealthy will always
have the political power to avoid contributing to bringing the bottom
up. This will leave it to the middle class to assist those less
fortunate, even as their own situations are slipping and their concept
of success—based on the lifestyles of the CEO-barons—is being driven
further out of reach. The middle class won’t want to do this, and
instead will support policies that benefit the super-wealthy.
the existence of the super-wealthy, Pizzigati argues, has a long
list of negative impacts on all of our lives. Get rid of vast concentrations
of wealth, and all sorts of things happen, including lower murder
rates, lower blood pressure, and lower housing prices. Research
suggests that when people see their situations improving over time,
and when they see their situations as acceptable by the standard
of those around them, they tend to be happy. The United States had
this in the 1950s and 1960s, a period when working families prospered
and income over $200,000 was taxed at roughly 90 percent.
societies with the healthiest and longest living people, extensive
research shows, are not those with the highest average wealth, but
those with the greatest equality of wealth.13 Explanations
for this fact vary from consideration of the levels of stress caused
by economic insecurity to the focusing of health care on plastic
surgery and other luxuries at the expense of treatment of actual
illnesses. Research also shows that a country’s murder rate varies
with its inequality, not its overall wealth or its criminal justice
proposes a new system of income tax that would lower taxes on 99
percent of Americans and allow the wealthiest 1 percent to lower
their taxes by lobbying to raise the minimum wage. This system would
ensure a living wage and a maximum wage as well. If your household
brought in less than the income of two full-time minimum wage workers,
you would pay no income tax. Above that level you would pay 1 percent.
Above twice the minimum wage you would pay 2 percent. And so on
up to 10 percent. Any income above ten times the minimum would be
taxed at 100 percent.15 If those with high incomes wanted
less of it taxed, all they would need to do would be to lobby Congress
to raise the minimum wage.
would mean significantly lower taxes on 99 percent of us. It would
also mean an economy focused on products for a once-again expanding
middle class, rather than our new aristocracy. The maximum wage
proposal will almost certainly be attacked as being supposedly motivated
by a desire to punish successful people (as if restricting someone
to ten times the minimum wage is punishment, but the minimum wage
itself is not). However, I favor a maximum wage for the simple reason
that a democratic republic cannot survive with an aristocracy. My
thought here is also a very American way of thinking and by no means
new, but I’m afraid it is not nearly as widespread as is support
for revenge and belief that revenge is everywhere.
Right to Be a Conscientious Objector
another proposal that’s sure to be controversial: we should create
the right not to be made a participant in a war of aggression, as
a soldier, contractor, or taxpayer. After all, wars of aggression
are already illegal, so there ought not to be anything dangerous
in giving individuals the right to obey the law. We should also
update the Third Amendment to give us the right to live in towns
and cities free from any public presence of military force. In fact,
we should create the right to live in a nation either not armed
for aggressive war or actively working toward disarmament and actively
working toward global disarmament.
Freedom of the Press, and Freedom from War Lies
should expand the First Amendment to require meaningful freedom
of the press, and I will discuss later some policies that might
make that a reality. But I think we might consider one strictly
limited restriction on our First Amendment rights.
This would involve the establishment of a right to protection from
war propaganda, including any false, misleading, or fraudulent information
intended to create support for war, with criminal penalties
for violators. We should never underestimate the danger of restricting
free speech or of opening up the possibility of further restricting
free speech, but the clear fact is that war is much more destructive
than any other human activity (with the possible exception of long
term environmental destruction). It is already forbidden to falsely
scream “Fire!” in a crowded building, so it might makes sense to
forbid effectively drenching crowded buildings in lighter fluid.
I would, however, expand the right to free speech to include the
right to be a whistleblower and expose violations of the law by
superiors, in public or private work places, without negative consequences.
Right to Know Your Rights
I think that we need enshrined in explicit terms in our Constitution,
as well as perhaps elaborated in a book called “Self-Government
for Dummies,” the right to know what the laws are, and to have the
laws applied equally to everyone.
Any BlackCommentator.com article may
be re-printed so long as it is re-printed in its entirety and full
credit given to the author and www.BlackCommentator.com. If the
re-print is on the Internet we additionally request a link back
to the original piece on our Website.
Your comments are always welcome.
eMail re-print notice
If you send us an eMail message
we may publish all or part of it, unless you tell us it
is not for publication. You may also request that we withhold
Thank you very much for your readership.
Your comments are always welcome.
1 , 2009
published every Thursday
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Est. April 5, 2002
Printer Friendly Version
in resizeable plain
text format or pdf