Originally appeared on the 2076project.com
A better understanding of liberty can come from a fundamental understanding of rights. “Rights” are what humans are entitled to simply because they are humans. But it is not that simple. There is an, unfortunately, common misunderstanding of what rights are and where rights come from. Often people will claim “there is a right to _________”, but the supposed right that they name cannot be a right if rights are properly understood. How do we know which rights are legitimate and which are not? Answering this question requires a look at some other questions: What are “natural rights”, why are they important, and how are they fundamental to liberty?
What are rights?
All humans are entitled to preserve their own property. Essentially, all rights that are legitimate rights are property rights. The right to “life” is a property right because each man and woman “owns” his or her own body. Included with the right to life is the right of self-preservation (i.e. the right to take the necessary steps to sustain one’s own life) and the right to self-defense (i.e. the right to ward off injury or loss from the attack of another). The right to life is paramount. For if man cannot have a right to his own life, does he really have a right to anything?
The right to “liberty” is a property right in a sense because everyone owns his or her own body. If you own your own body, then you should be free to do with it what you want – provided that you allow everyone else to do the same. In other words, man should be free to do what he wants as long as it doesn’t restrict another’s liberty.
Finally, “property” itself is, obviously, a property right. When a man “mixes his labor”, as the great philosopher John Locke described, with the natural resources around him, those resources become his property. He has transformed what God has provided through nature into something more readily available and more useful. Through his labor, he has a right to own what he has created. As the owner of something, he can keep it, trade it, sell it, dispose of it, or do what he sees fit up until the point where he transfers his ownership of it to someone else (if he ever chooses to do so). No man is entitled to the fruits of another man’s labor.
Where do rights come from?
Our rights – the rights that every human is entitled to have recognized – come from God. They exist within a state of nature. The state of nature is the bare minimum of what humanity can be reduced to. Take man away from all the modern amenities of shelter, clothing, readily available food, etc., and he exists in the state of nature. He may have no technology, nothing to eat, and no water to drink, but he is still man, and he is still entitled to his rights. Therefore, no man can claim a “right” to something that does not exist in the state of nature. Even resources necessary to his survival are not resources that he has a “right” to. No one has a right to food, but he does have a right to gather food and has a right to own it once he does so. If one man picks wild fruits, he has mixed his labor with the natural resources, so the fruits belong to him. He can do with them as he please whether it be eat them, dispose of them, given them away, trade them, or whatever else he may desire. But no one has a right to take them from him whether it be to feed himself, feed his starving children, or whatever else it may be. If a second man has no food, he does not have a “right” to the first man’s fruit. Rights protect property. They do not give one person access to the property of another.
Natural rights vs enumerated rights
Man’s rights are property lights, and they can be synthesized, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, into the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. If government is to have a purpose, it is simply to protect these natural, legitimate rights. To this end, governments often list “enumerated” rights that the citizens in a bill of rights or other rights-protecting document. The enumerated rights are specifically written down for all citizens to see. They are designed to protect the natural rights man already has. Enumerated rights themselves, however, are not, natural rights. For example, the United States Constitution has an enumerated right to “keep and bear arms” meaning that the citizen has the right to own weapons. The right to “keep and bear arms” is not a “natural right” because these weapons do not exist in the state of nature. No one can go into nature and pick a rifle off of the rifle tree.[i] Man does, however, have a natural right to protect his life and other property, so the Constitution has an enumerated right protecting an American’s ability to use firearms to protect natural rights defensively if he or she chooses to do so.
It is important to note that rights do not come from government. Rather, they are only enumerated by government in order to protect man’s already existing natural rights. When government establishes so-called rights that do not protect liberty, are not designed to protect natural rights, or can only be delivered by taking resources from one and giving them to another, then tyranny exists.
A proper understanding of rights stems from the realization that man has natural, God-given rights. These rights exist in a state of nature, therefore, no man can have a right to anything that does not also exist in a state of nature. Government’s role is to protect man’s rights. It does this by establishing enumerated rights that even the government cannot take from its citizens without due process. If government does not protect these rights, or outright violates them, then tyranny exists. That is why knowing what rights truly are is so important: So you can defend your liberty, and oppose tyranny.
[i] But the resources that make up the rifle (e.g. the wood for the stock, the metal in the barrel and moving mechanisms, etc.) are from nature, and when a man mixes his labor with those resources to create something new, it certainly does become his property and he has a right to it.