For all the discussion and debate about civil rights, it is striking how little attention is given initially to the question of what civil rights are. There is no well-understood principle of inclusion or exclusion that defines the category. Nor is there an agreed list of civil rights, except perhaps a very short, avowedly nonexhaustive one, with rather imprecise entries. Yet, if the extension of the category of civil rights is uncertain, its significance is not. All agree that it is a principal task of government to protect civil rights, so much so, indeed, that a failure to protect them usually is regarded as outweighing substantial achievements of other kinds. But a right does not count as a civil right just because it is valuable or valued. Some of the rights most often asserted as civil rights reflect practical interests of their possessors considerably less than other actual or potential rights not so identified.
In the United States, familiar legal doctrine provides a shortcut to the specification of civil rights. They are whatever is embraced by the provisions of the federal Civil Rights Acts: the right to vote, fair housing, equal employment opportunity, and so forth. That path, however, is not adequate for the present purpose. For the most part, the statutes refer explicitly or implicitly to federal constitutional rights, and the collective reference to them as civil rights is unexplained. The bases of the constitutional rights are too various to be a reliable guide to an independently designated category of civil rights.
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