Sunday, October 3, 2010


Where do rights come from? The Declaration of Independence, with the line regarding truths that are self-evident, suggests that the right to life, liberty and the pursuit (key word, by the way) of happiness are natural rights. To the framers, the natural rights are granted to humans by the Creator. Or creator, depending on how you view these things.

I'm not versed in the philosophy of rights and whatnot, but it seems that the above (natural rights) position has as its opposite the position that rights are granted by the state to its populace. The sticking point, as I see it, is that natural rights can be violated by the state. This makes it akin, in practice, to the rejection that rights exist outside of the state. So because the rights can be violated, and this looks like the rights are being rejected, then they must be granted by the state in the first place. This does appear to have some logic to it.

But note the conundrum one arrives at after a reductio ad absurdum. If the state grants rights and therefore can revoke those rights at any time then anything the state does is acceptable. I'm sure you can see how this leads one have to accept certain completely unacceptable historical events.

It seems that only a natural rights position in tenable at this point.


  1. So, it seems the only logical conclusion is to have no state at all? If maximum protection of rights is our goal, the means is minimization of the state.

  2. The goal of erecting a government is to guard our rights. But, the problem with a government is that it grows into a state that imposes its will on society. So I think minimal government is untenable. It will always grow into a large state. The trick is can government power recede? Don't know about that one, although there are some encouraging examples (like Sweden).

  3. The irony is that (a free) people erect a government (social contract) to guard and protect (not give) our rights. After a time, this same government begins to assume and acquire power; power to chip away at the same rights it was contracted to protect. We now have become less free. So, what mechanisms can be put in place to limit concentrated federal power?

    It seems the main source of power is money. Without money, a gov't cannot enforce its will on the people, or at least it will become more difficult to do so. How can we bind a gov't so that it can't grow into a large state? Since government makes the rules, this appears to be a big challenge. Several thoughts come to mind - balanced budget amendment, term limits, US Senate elections by state legislature, etc.


  4. My first thought, carrying on the idea of money, is to have free banking. Free banking is characterized by the freedom to issue notes, such that there is no government monopoly on notes. Without such a monopoly, the government/state has no ability to just print money to pay for things.

    The next step is to limit taxation as a source of revenue. A constitution should ban any kind of income tax and limit excise taxes to a very low amount. About sufficient to pay for the necessities of government (like security).

    But, I think the main obstacle is ideological. Too many people think that a democratic government is basically good and so see nothing wrong with an enlarged state presence until it's too late. This can only be countered with education, but the problem there is that the public schools have basically a monopoly.

  5. MIght natural rights be evolved? Might we then look to evolution -- to the line that gave rise to humans -- to answer questions about the origins of rights?

    Here and here are a few ideas I have played with on the evolutionary origins of property rights, for example. Rights having evolutionary origins and, thus, being part of human nature, would then suggest that governments should be established to protect those natural rights -- and that violating such rights invalidates the government in question.

  6. Troy,

    I like what you have written there, as it gets around the major hang-up of Locke's version of Natural Rights. Specifically, Locke and others argued that we are granted natural rights by the Creator. Your argument is in line with what I have in mind when I write creator instead of Creator.

    Basically what I get from you is that property rights are an inherent biological feature of animals. Thus any denial of the existence of natural rights is denial of human's status as an animal and thus illogical and incorrect.

    If that's the basis of your argument, then I like it and think you're correct. Given that natural rights exist, we can move to the next level of extension of biological ownership of the self to ownership of "stuff" including land originally.

  7. You are correct. I do argue that property rights are not just human, not just ape, not just primate, not just social mammalian, not just mammalian, not just land vertebrate, but vertebrate -- specifically, lobe-finned fishes giving rise to the line that gave rise to humans. The denial of the existence of property rights is denial of human's status as a vertebrate.

  8. Troy,

    Are you vegetarian? If not, how do you reconcile eating animals with their having property rights?