An article in the New York Times yesterday discussed a new controversy about the Declaration of Independence—whether there is period after “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” Any controversy that encourages more people to focus on the Declaration and recall our past is most welcome. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the resolution of this debate would fundamentally change the Declaration’s important understanding of the relation between liberty and government. However the document is punctuated, I see three important propositions of political theory implicit in its majestic words:
1. Government is limited to securing “inalienable rights.” Thus, government while necessary is limited by reference to the rights it protects. It is a servant, not a master of citizens.
2. These inalienable rights are largely negative rights and the procedural mechanisms of justice to assure them.