from The Psychology of Liberty
by Wes Bertrand © 2000, copylefted 2007

Rights—The Preeminent Political Principle

If one of our main social/political goals is to live together harmoniously and interact in a benevolent fashion, then we must address the idea of rights—human rights. Actually, the term right solely pertains to human beings because only a human consciousness can formulate the concept. To ascribe rights to anything other than humans is rather to name what is of high value to an individual, not something that possesses rights. As in the other key term, property, rights can only mean rights of an individual—not rights of any derivative group.

The idea of rights was formally established by the seventeenth century philosopher John Locke. It was taken to new heights of understanding and implementation by the Founding Fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson. Historically speaking, the idea of rights was facilitated by numerous events in Europe. The following identifies some (by no means all) of these events: the shift from a feudal-state to a merchant/trade-state; the Protestant Reformation, which led to greater emphasis on the primacy of the individual; the blending of natural science with political thought, which marked the decline of the importance of the ecclesiastical past; the development of more formal business contracts, which led Locke to apply the notion of contract to the individual’s relationship with government; and, Locke’s ideas of natural rights and property, which were aided by his further establishment of the ideas of free will and of knowledge acquisition from the senses (Locke held that the mind is tabula rasa at birth—in contrast to the notion of innate ideas). Most of these progressions coalesced in the eighteenth century. Political historian Mulford Sibley wrote:

We may epitomize this climate by saying that it had confidence in the emancipating power of reason; tended to reject the past, and particularly the Middle Ages; thought of religion in deistic terms—Locke’s God of nature; conceived the universe largely as a mechanism, after the model of Sir Isaac Newton, of Hobbes, and of Locke; and thought of intellect as somehow separated from the emotions. These characteristics were true of literature as well as political thought.96(p.386)

In precise terminology, right delimits a moral code of behavior that implies a certain freedom of action in relation to others.76 The Founders ascribed to humans (although not to all humans) the freedom of action necessary for people to exist and prosper as individuals. Freedom of action presupposes choices. So, rights are tied to volition, which is of course part of reason.

By stating for the first time in history that humans possess certain inalienable rights, the Founders identified a profound fact. This identification was to dramatically change the course of political development. People could recognize openly without shame, fear, or guilt, that their lives—and therefore property—belonged to them. They could throw off the shackles of oppressive governmental rule and the dependent psychologies that often go with it. Happiness was now an attainable goal.

The concept of rights could be seen as the first realization that all people are truly individuals. This was an enormous psychological step forward, considering especially the context of all prior history. If we owe any great debt to these scholars, it is to their identification of rights. Even though the Founders did not (or were not able to) take the concept of rights to its full logical outcome, they nonetheless ought to be commended for getting the idea "out there," into objective reality, for people to see and integrate. This is a crucial step in the realm of new ideas: to make them known. From there, it is up to people’s honesty, confidence, and courage to take further steps.

Taking the concept of rights to its logical outcome entails implementing its full meaning. One must apply it politically to every person, irrespective of race, color, gender, ethnicity, or any other superficial description or inane prejudice. In addition, one has to consider the concept’s devastating implications for the process of Democracy, in which "might makes right."

As stated, rights pertain to freedom of action. Like other organisms, we sustain our life by action. All organisms need to act in accordance with their nature and distinctive methods of survival. To fail to do so would be detrimental, if not fatal, to their lives and well-being. Since we possess the faculty of reason (and concomitantly volition), our behavior is quite different from other animals.

We are able to constantly shape and reorganize our surroundings to fit our needs creatively, not merely instinctually. Rather than passively adapt and react to our environment, we can change our conditions in innumerable ways. The human mind utilizes opportunities for further satisfaction and achievement, and it can create many values in the material realm from substances in the environment. This is the way we use our distinctive capacities and, therefore, survive on this planet.

In order to fully accomplish our tasks, we need to be free to act and make choices. A conceptual mind requires freedom to think, judge, discriminate, feel, and enjoy things. To see to it that we do not interfere with others and that others do not interfere with us, we have rights. Rights enable expression of values without censorship by others.

Since we possess rights on account of what we are, they are an inseparable, integrated sum. In politics today, though, governments try to divide rights up piecemeal. Governments ignore the fact that rights are the integration of body and spirit; actions of the body are inseparable from actions of the mind. Yet, since most of us were taught that rights are things given to us by the Constitution, the idea of rights is more easily treated as open for amendment rather than an unalterable fact of reality.

One does not have the right to grant rights to others, only to recognize and respect them. Rights can never be given to us by favor or by permission from a government (or any other entity posturing as an authority). The failure to acknowledge this has been the fatal contradiction in political and legal thinking for countless centuries. It has allowed the most depraved and unjust acts to be perpetrated against innocent persons—persons who probably did not recognize their own importance and internal greatness.

Amending rights means negating them. It can lead to benefiting some at the expense of others. Yet the State regularly enables people to obtain various goods and services from others without their consent. Clearly, to claim that the recipients have "rights" to these goods and services is contradictory. Referring to a Democratic Party platform of alleged rights, Rand wrote:

Jobs, food, clothing, recreation (!), homes, medical care, education, etc., do not grow in nature. These are man-made values——goods and services produced by men. Who is to provide them?

If some men are entitled by right to the products of the work of others, it means that those others are deprived of rights and condemned to slave labor.

Any alleged ‘right’ of one man, which necessitates the violation of the rights of another, is not and cannot be a right.

No man can have a right to impose an unchosen obligation, an unrewarded duty or an involuntary servitude on another man. There can be no such thing as ‘the right to enslave.’76(p.96)

All the desirable possessions and experiences for humans must be acquired through their own efforts and at their own expenses (or through voluntary reception). For instance, we have a right to exchange goods with others. We do not (nor does any government) have a right to destroy or seize another’s property (i.e., in violation of laws of justice). We have a right to the fruits of our labors in the way they have been negotiated, for example, with our employers. We do not have a right to take others’ earnings for our own uses or uses of "the country." We have a right to pursue a course of action that betters our life on Earth. We do not have a right to sacrifice others in the process. We have a right to defend ourselves and our property from another’s aggression (and to seek reparation for damages). We do not have the right to be the aggressor.

Rights imply that we are free so long as we do not inhibit the freedom of others. By doing this, everyone’s life is enriched instead of depleted. In the words of nineteenth century advocate of freedom Lysander Spooner:

In short, every man’s natural rights are, first, the right to do, with himself and his property, everything that he pleases to do, and that justice towards others does not forbid him to do; and, secondly, to be free from all compulsion, by others, to do anything whatever, except what justice to others requires him to do.98(p.97)

Infringing and interfering with others’ freedom to live is equivalent to denying the distinctively human method of survival. Without the ability to make choices to guide our life and ensure survival, we are impotent. We may want to pursue a course of action, but are compelled to do otherwise. Coercion is a primary method of interaction for many kinds of other animals because they lack the ability to reason and make choices and, hence, control their actions. We, however, are guided by our capacity of decision-making—not merely a sensory-perceptual mechanism. Personal choice and conceptual knowledge guide us.

Of course, to deny these truths is to be guilty of a huge contradiction, precisely because one must choose to deny them. To say that reason—and thus voluntary, consensual, agreements—should not be the sole means for humans to deal with each other is, plainly, to exempt oneself from the realm of reason.

Initiatory force—that is, force not used in self-defense and not used to exact justice from an aggressor—is inherently anti-rights. It directly seeks to nullify the capacity for identification, evaluation, and subsequent action (i.e., one’s capacity for living). One can never claim the right to incapacitate the source and creator of rights—the human mind.82

Again, we possess rights innately by virtue of being reasoning creatures. Rights can never be limited, altered, or taken away from us metaphysically—that is, no one can change the nature of human beings. Our rights can, however, be lessened (and are lessened) existentially through political means. Yet, to limit, alter, and take away rights from people politically denies what is real. Since it denies the key facet of the human method of survival, it denies an aspect of reality. And the denial of an aspect of reality is capable to humans through rationalization: In order to distort what is metaphysically, one must distort one’s interpretations and identifications of reality through a variety of contradictions.

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