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Secure of Private Rights

“For who can be secure of private right,
If sovereign sway may be dissolved by might?”
—John Dryden,
Absalom and Achitophel

Dryden’s question, posed more than 300 years ago, supposes a just distinction but also a connection between one kind of rights, which he calls “private,” and another, “sovereign sway,” or legitimate public order.  The public is duly the respecter and guarantor of the private.  This does not imply priority of the sovereign state, or public, nor of some overbearing Rousseauesque “general will,” by turns custodial and tyrannical, the tyranny introduced (in socialist states) by means of that very custodianship.  Indeed, privacy—that is, the personal—is prior, yielding in matters of legitimate common concern but never a prerogative granted by the state.

If, however, public right, vulnerable to disorder, can be undone by uncontrolled ambition and abuse of power, security in the private realm is jeopardized.  Whatever form one chooses to give to the notion of sovereign—unless it is seen as sheer force, which is the antithesis of order as Dryden understood it—a properly ordered public polity is the foundation for privacy, which (among other meanings) Webster’s defines as “freedom from unauthorized oversight or observation.”  Albeit in a greatly limited...

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