On November 7, Michiganders will vote on Proposal 2—the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI)—which prevents Michigan government from discriminating against and granting preferential treatment to individuals based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin. Borrowing the rallying cry used by Malcolm X and later by the Black Panthers, the organized opposition to the MCRI calls itself, "By Any Means Necessary," or BAMN. And for good reason. BAMN views the principle of equal protection for equal God-given rights as a mortal threat to big, bureaucratic government and the liberal politics that built it. From the liberal point of view, the MCRI must be killed. BAMN!
The United States was founded on the principle that all human beings, by virtue of their shared human nature, possess equal natural rights. According to the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents, rights come from a Creator, not government. Government's purpose is limited to protecting natural rights, which is the standard we use to judge governments: People may exercise their natural right "to alter or to abolish" a government that violates, rather than protects, these rights.
The political logic of the American Founding requires that a government of limited purpose should be a government of limited power. The U.S. Constitution and all state constitutions limit the power of government so that it better achieves its purpose—protecting rights—rather than threatening them.
Americans today, however, have largely forgotten the natural right principles of the Founders' Constitution, adopting instead a new "progressive" theory of rights and a corresponding "progressive" understanding of government's purposes.
More than a century ago, "progressive" thinkers and politicians (who later called co-opted the name "liberal") began attacking limited, constitutional government in favor of a large bureaucratic-welfare state, one that could better achieve vague and changing notions of evolutionary "progress" and "social justice." Woodrow Wilson, for example, insisted that "living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice"—academic code for saying the Constitution has no fixed or objective meaning.
Operating largely outside the scope of the original Constitution, the modern bureaucratic state built by progressive-liberals regulates virtually every aspect of American life, from the way we raise and educate our children to what can and cannot be preached from our religious pulpits to our employees' skin color. It redistributes property, taking from some and giving to others, and attempts to manage the economy, all in the name of "social progress."
In order to defend the government's new expansive purposes, the first generation of progressive intellectuals quickly jettisoned the idea of natural rights. As political scientist Charles Merriam boasted as early as 1902, "natural law and natural rights" had been rejected by progressive social scientists "with practical unanimity." Instead, "the state is the source of individual liberty" and therefore no "limit can be set to governmental activity."
Franklin Roosevelt adopted this intellectual framework as he marketed his New Deal in the 1930s. In his most comprehensive political speech, delivered at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club, Roosevelt redefined the founding's original social contract, arguing that the contract is not between individuals but rather between the people and the government, so that government is "accorded power" and in turn grants "certain rights" to the people. Since government is the source of rights, "the redefinition of these rights" is among government's powers and purposes.
From the progressive view, limiting government limits liberty—the bigger the government, the more government-created rights it can deliver. But unlike natural rights, government-created rights need not be equal among citizens. Liberal "social justice" authorizes government bureaucrats to determine who gets what kind of rights and how much, dividing Americans into groups based on victimization and needs: racial minorities, women, homosexuals, farmers, union members, the elderly, the poor, etc.
The so-called "affirmative action" policies desperately defended by BAMN are emblematic of the new progressive regime. They rest on the assumption that the kind and number of rights you have depend on whether you are a member of a victimized group that affirmative action bureaucrats have deemed deserving of special treatment. These policies have the doubly corrupting effect of misleading Americans into thinking that their rights are gifts from government, while simultaneously justifying massive bureaucracies—most of which are blatantly unconstitutional—that distribute entitlements and preferences to some groups at the expense of others.
The last thing liberals want is to remind Americans that all citizens possess equal natural rights and that constitutional government's only legitimate purpose is equal protection of those rights, ideas that stand in direct opposition to modern liberal government's policies and purposes. This is why the liberals at BAMN will resort to "any means necessary" to stop the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. And it is why those who have an interest in recovering constitutional government have an interest in the MCRI's success.