February 9th, 2012

Rights Precede and Supercede the Government

Here’s my latest op-ed, published at the Davis Clipper.


The Declaration of Independence affirms and clarifies the origin of our individual rights. Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s primary author, wrote that we “are endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Thus, these rights – amongst which are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – both precede any instituted government, and supercede whatever laws it may pass in violation of them.

More than a mere game of semantics, understanding the source of our rights is paramount to understanding what government may legitimately do. Do we enjoy our liberty at the good graces of government, or does the government only exist to protect our pre-existing rights? The answer to this, while thankfully obvious to some, has significant implications for everything the government does (supposedly) in our name.

The main purpose of individuals establishing governments, as the philosopher John Locke observed, “is the preservation of their property.” Prior to any government, individuals have the moral authority to repel any aggressor, and protect their lives, liberties, and property from attack. This individual authority can therefore be delegated to an organization, such as a government, whose officers can defend the individuals within that organization.

To be legitimate, then, any government action must be predicated upon an individual right which has been properly delegated to that government. Military and police powers become easily reconciled, as they are based upon the individual right to self-defense. But so much of what government does falls outside this narrow scope.

Does an individual have an inherent right to take money from his neighbor to keep his business afloat? He does not, and therefore government bailouts of private business have no moral justification. Does an individual have an inherent right to use violence against his neighbor for growing and consuming a marijuana plant? He does not, and therefore the war on drugs has no moral justification. Does an individual have an inherent right to compel his neighbors to help fund his child’s education, and his aging mother’s health care needs? He does not, and therefore government education and welfare programs likewise have no moral justification.

The pattern is clear, and becomes quite useful to analyze whether any government action is morally valid. One must simply ask: would I be justified in doing this to my neighbor tomorrow, if the government were to be dissolved today?

Supporters of illegitimate government authority claim that there exists some “social contract” which justifies government powers that the individuals who comprise it do not possess – a contract which has never been signed, nor its terms even disclosed! Some also believe that because a majority of voters approve the powers, they become valid. This wrongly supposes that a majority of neighbors can decide that their immoral actions upon the dissenting minority become magically moral by their simply having said so.

The French economist and philosopher Frédéric Bastiat rightly said that “if the very purpose of law is the protection of individual rights, then law may not be used… to accomplish what individuals have no right to do.” While it’s easy to point to low-hanging, corrupt fruit on the tree of government, it’s time to pull up the roots and realize how diseased the entire tree has become.

13 Responses to “Rights Precede and Supercede the Government”

  1. Chris
    February 10, 2012 at 2:43 am #

    I’m really wondering what kind of world you envision.

    Of course, were your premises and reasoning to be true, then it wouldn’t matter what the results would be, since the principles of government & society would be the correct ones… So I recognize that regardless of the consequences you would still support it. But I’m curious what you actually believe would happen and what kind of society we would have if the government’s only role were to be police and military related.

    Do you believe that prosperity and happiness would be increased near universally? Or that it definitely would for certain groups but not others, but that’s okay because the principles are correct? What good and bad effects would you predict?

  2. Brint Baggaley
    February 10, 2012 at 2:52 pm #

    Chris,

    I won’t speak for anyone else, but I think the closest thing to a Libertarian state we have seen in modern times was Hong Kong while under British rule. I’m not sure how it has done under China, but the British basically just made sure people didn’t kill or steal and left them very free. The standard of living was high. Poverty was nearly non-existent. All this from a densly populated area with virtually no natural resources. I don’t know if that’s how it would always turn out and I’m not a believer in Utopian ideas, but it gives a vision.

  3. Robert McFadzean
    February 12, 2012 at 7:49 pm #

    I have trouble being reconciled with the military and police powers. I can see an individual or a group purchasing security services, but how can I give my government the right to provide these services? I don’t have the right to tax my neighbour, so how can I authorize my government to tax?

  4. Clumpy
    February 12, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

    Robert introduces some ambiguities here. I’ve never really understood the argument of “natural rights.” Perhaps somebody here can enlighten me, given my concerns below.

    I don’t have the “right” to cordone off a section of land and claim it as my own, and yet I’m certain that mainstream libertarianism strongly believes in the defense of private property. Is the initial claim of the land/natural resources “theft,” or is the only thief the second guy who shows up wanting that land? The “inalienable” first dibs rule?

    The (probably necessary) abstraction of monetary systems is hardly inherent in the state of nature, but one’s continued access to their acquired resources becomes increasingly sure as governmental ability to protect against “theft” increases. In the state of nature, on the other hand, a term like “property” makes very little sense, nor the idea of one’s “rights” to the same. This is one thing Marxists invariably invoke when they point out the artificiality of “selling” labor to those with capital, or equate hiring desperate people at low margins with theft as surely as a mugging (the “consensual” choice of “work for me or starve” vs. “work for me or be shot”).

    Either extreme of opinion seems excessive to me, except to point out the abstract nature of the debate. What “rights” do you have in the absence of some central body who can guarantee those rights? Certainly not the right to property, unless you have a few loyal allies with the munitions to support your claim. Certainly not the right to life; nobody can guarantee that. You have no inherent rights or guarantees against murder, arson, assault, starvation or theft of property without some organized body to enforce those rights. Without your friends, the government, or vigilante superheroes to enforce your rights to life or property you have none, and without friends, government or charity to protect you from starvation, homelessness or debilitating sickness you have no rights against those either. Why the immediate acceptance of some rights as somehow inherent to existence when such a thing can’t be proven?

  5. AV
    February 14, 2012 at 1:17 am #

    I totally agree with your post Connor. No government has a right to do anything that the citizens themselves don’t have the God given right to do.

    God gives us our rights & sets the standard we are to live by & we are to set up governments to ‘protect’ those divine rights & enforce God’s laws by applying consequences for those who break God’s laws.

    God even sets up Churches also, to above all, protect us & our rights as best they can, by teaching correct principles & by applying consequences to those who abuse the rights & well-being of others.

    If a Government or Church does not 1st & foremost protect it’s people & their rights, nothing else that government or church does will matter much or save it from disintegration.

    Unfortunately it appears that no government or church today protects it’s people, or their divine rights, nor expects it’s people to adhere to God’s laws, nor do they usually apply necessary consequences when they don’t.

    In order to protect a people & their rights, civil or religious leaders must apply consequences to those who break God’s laws, which the government must be founded upon.

    Without consequences for sin, there can be no freedom.

    Government & Churches are also responsible to protect & respect the equal rights, authority, power & privileges of men & women. Though many governments are finally respecting women’s equal rights, unfortunately very few, if any, churches actually do this yet.

    Sadly, I do not know of any church today, that does it’s #1 responsibility to ‘protect’ it’s members, nor any church who takes care of the widows & the fatherless as they are commanded to do.

    No government, church or leader can be trusted or righteous unless they 1st protect the people & provide for the widows & the fatherless.

    Unless a church or government does these two vital things, it will soon disintegrate into nothing, as we see happening all around us today in every nation & Church.

  6. Brint Baggaley
    February 14, 2012 at 9:50 am #

    Clumpy,

    I was hoping someone a little smarter than me would take this up, but I guess they can correct wherever my opinion gets too far off.

    To my understanding, natural rights refers to what god gives (life foremost) and therefore, only he has the right to take it away (we’ll skip all the self defense nuances). Liberty and property are tied to life. The philosophy comes from John Locke who states:

    “Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common [as the gift from God] to all men, yet every man has a “property” in his own “person.” This, nobody has any right to but himself. The “labour” of his body and the “work” of his hands, we may say are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and therreby makes it his property…Thus this law of reason makes the deer that [property of the Indian] who hath killed it; it is allowed to be his goods who hath bestowed his labour upon it, though, before, it was the common right of every one.” (Locke, 2nd Essay Concerning Civil Government)

    By application, I would say your inalienable 1st dibs rule (and I love the wording) is somewhat correct. Back in the day before dense population, one could go out and claim (dibs) land. I would say it became his when he built his farm on it, thereby mixing his labor. If someone else wanted a farm, they would go to the next spot and build their farm. Nowadays that land is pretty much owned, we invest our person in obtaining money to buy it, which, to me seems proper.

    I believe the analogy of ‘work or starve or work or be shot’ misses the boat somewhat in that with the government focused only on protecting god given rights, there are many more choices. In my Hong Kong model, work for myself was a common choice. I have worked for a small business where the owner often made less money than I did as an employee because the priority was to provide for the workers. I think the extreme capitalists (let’s pay as little as possible) and the socialists (let’s take everything we can) both fall far from god’s law or natural law, one wanting to take advantage of the work of another, the other wanting to take advantage of the risk and investment of another. The B of M sums this up well in 2 Nephi 26: 30-31.
    “Behold, the Lord hath forbidden this thing; wherefore, the Lord God hath given a commandment that all men should have charity, which charity is love. And except they should have charity they were nothing. Wherefore, if they should have charity they would not suffer the laborer in Zion to perish.”
    “But the laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion; for if they labor for money they shall perish.”

    To my understanding, the government is to protect Life, Liberty, and Property, which means honoring contracted labor. The individual is to have love and therefore take care of the laborer. The laborer is to have love and labor for the company or community, etc. When this is the case, everyone is respected and natural rights and law are observed. When this gets out of balance and each side is fighting for money or trying to exploit the other, then governments start to run amok (against natural law) trying to solve issues and our freedoms are in peril.

  7. Clumpy
    February 14, 2012 at 11:17 am #

    @Brint

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. I definitely think that the Locke stuff is just a little arbitrary, though I’m quite comfortable in a conscientious capitalistic society and I think that you outline the case very well for such as you go through your post. I think there’s a lot of evidence for the “Capitalism = bigger pie, distribution = more even allocation of pie” argument, so in the absence of a meritocratic society which can never really exist, capitalism driven by a philosophy of free competition and conscientious treatment of employees is a great system with larger aggregate yields. It doesn’t solve the problem of socioeconomic status persisting from generation to generation (and thus my dislike of any rhetoric which poses riches as primarily the yield of hard work and property/land as absolutely sacrosanct), but I’m not sure there’s a better system possible.

    Unfortunately, we’ve gone from a profit-oriented business economy to a growth-oriented corporate economy, so labor has become fully commoditized. This increases efficiency in many ways but throws the concept of humanizing your labor force right out the window, and solidifies the problem of class imbalance where a select few are born into capital, while most of the rest have only their daily labor to sell (and despite the possibility of class mobility, the class one is born into is still the greatest determining factor of the class they pass on to their children).

    The solution, I feel, is a cultural one. The doctrine of efficiency, of making “the tough decisions” (read: wrong ones) and being shielded from the consequences by corporate unaccountability, needs to end. I drift closest to libertarianism of any philosophy of government I’ve heard because I believe that the corporate/government revolving door, favorable regulation and a lack of willingness to pursue criminal actions enables and feeds this terrible culture, and closes off opportunities to entrepreneurship and outside competition which is the foundation of upward class mobility. (Not to mention the fact that most of my other strong political beliefs – not imprisoning millions for minor drug and immigration charges to line private prison and pharma pockets, killing millions oversees to feed our jingoism and enrich contractors – falls into this line of thought.) Still, while I chafe at much of the dogma of libertarianism, if the accord you’ve brought into the conversation were the best I could get I’d be more than happy with it :).

  8. Brint Baggaley
    February 14, 2012 at 11:50 am #

    Clumpy,

    Thanks for good conversation and thought provoking ideas. I have a lot of thoughts on this subject. Rather than fill up Connor’s blog with pontification, I’ll refer anyone interested to my own.
    http://www.stateofmankind.com/other-essays/the-pursuit-of-happiness/

  9. Jimz
    February 18, 2012 at 6:24 pm #

    Av,
    I am not sure what you are advocating, but the government can’t endorse any particular religion or philosophy. You can’t expect any enforcement of gods law. Who is defining that? what If I don’t agree?

    The only prinicples I expect the government to protect me are from fraud, physical abuse, slander or libel, and things along those lines. I don’t expect it to enforce any rules of a religion I don’t follow.

  10. Rhonda
    March 27, 2012 at 10:51 am #

    Jimz,

    The only thing our Constitution says about religion is that GOVERNMENT will make no law controlling- or silencing- it. It does not say we cannot use religious tenets as our foundation. Truths in church are truths, period. True principles are true principles, no matter where you find them.

    George Washington said, in his Farewell Address, Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.”

    As far as what principles and laws to rule by, is there any honest religion that opposes the Ten Commandments? They seem universal to me.
    1- Honor God first (whoever you consider God)
    2- No graven images- well, some would oppose this one-
    3- Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. “In vain” means to not have the effect you intended, i.e., don’t do things in his name that he wouldn’t! (Be careful to know what he would do.)
    4- Make the Sabbath holy (whichever day is your Sabbath)
    5- Honor your father and mother
    6- Do not murder
    7- Do not commit adultery (this destroys families, the fundamental unit of society)
    8- Do not steal
    9- Do not bear false witness
    10- Do not covet (desire to have) anything that is your neighbors. (Go earn your own)

    Simple rules, no volumes of lawbooks needed!

  11. TRON
    March 27, 2012 at 5:09 pm #

    @Rhonda

    1. What about atheists, devil worshipers, or animists?
    2. What about money, merit badges, or political parties?
    3. Would the Lord deny health care to anyone? And at the same time give tax cuts to the rich?
    4. Again what about atheists, devil worshipers, or animists?
    5. What about orphans? :)
    6. 7. 8. 9. I think all of those are on the books.
    10. Wow, I can’t think of anything my neighbors have that I want. :( I’ll work on that one. But how would you enforce that one anyways? Or even know?

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