The 1828 Noah Webster Dictionary defines the word “right,” in part, as: “A just claim”, “That which justly belongs to one,“ as well as “Authority,“ or “legal power.“
Often, the word “right” is preceded by a number of words, such as natural, fundamental, individual, or even human. These four words, in the end and for the concept of “equal rights” to remain intact, must all equate to the same basic principle. For, what is more natural for us as humans, than to be human, and what is more fundamental to us, than our natural humanity? And of course, humanity itself doesn’t exist on its own without intellectual regard to its individual members. Unless, somehow, a forest could somehow exist without the recognition of the fact that it is merely made up of individual trees, right? Therefore, any natural right would, thus, be inherent in an individual person.
Thus, for a right to be natural, or fundamental, to mankind, it would have to be a right that all of the people, individually, would be able to equally claim simultaneously!
The Virginia Declaration of Rights, a document written primarily authored by George Mason, and adopted by the Virginia Constitutional Convention in June of 1776, states in Section 1:
“That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
The Declaration of Independence, a document primarily authored by Mason’s fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, and which was signed just shy of a month later, states:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Do you notice the pattern of ideas, the theme, the principles, and thus, the similar mindset embodied in these two quotes? This is manifested in the Constitutions of the several States as well. For example, the Illinois Constitution, Article 1, Section 1 states:
“All men are by nature free and independent and have certain inherent and inalienable rights among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To secure these rights and the protection of property, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Even the Constitution of Utah, not written until 1895, 119 years after the two founding documents quoted above, and even written under more compromising circumstances in order for Utah to be allowed by the U.S. Congress to become a State of the Union, states, in Article 1, Section 1:
“All men have the inherent and inalienable right to enjoy and defend their lives and liberties; to acquire, possess and protect property; to worship according to the dictates of their consciences; to assemble peaceably, protest against wrongs, and petition for redress of grievances; to communicate freely their thoughts and opinions, being responsible for the abuse of that right.”
Notice the word inherent being used in describing rights. If rights come as a natural result of our humanity, then how could they possibly not be perceived as being equal to all mankind? If rights came as a result of some association, club, or state of which we are affected by, or are a direct party to, then why couldn’t those rights be denied to an individual, seeing as how that form of “right” somehow mysteriously came as a result of some sort of collective principle, outside of the individual members?
Is a natural right similar to an item of clothing, which, can be given up, put on, taken off, and even be bartered away? If so, how could they be inherent?
Thomas Paine, a very influential author and activist during the time of the American Revolution, had this to say on the origin of natural rights:
“Rights are not gifts from one man to another, nor from one class of men to another. . . . It is impossible to discover any origin of rights otherwise than in the origin of man; it consequently follows that rights appertain to man in right of his existence, and must therefore be equal to every man.” (Quoted in The Freeman, Nov. 1959, pg. 66)
The Declaration of Independence gives us further insight into the origin and attributes of a fundamental natural right. Jefferson uses the word Unalienable in describing the nature of human rights. Many misquote the Declaration in using the word inalienable. Although the words are often, in terms of meaning, used interchangeably, there is a significant difference that deserves to be pointed out.
Inalienable is defined “as incapable of being surrendered or transferred; at least without one’s consent.” (Morrison v. State, Mo. App., 252 S.W.2d, 101, author’s emphasis)
Unalienable means “incapable of being alienated, that is, sold and transferred.” (Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition, pg. 1523, author’s emphasis)
Did you catch that? The difference may seem subtle, but when the idea is taken to the extreme, it can make a big difference!
Once it is understood that our natural rights are unalienable, it is then possible to see that there is not a nation of people on this earth that is not made up of people with fundamental rights! Regardless of the quality of the state in which they can or cannot exercise them, and regardless of the quality of security and protection of those people’s rights by their respective systems of governance, it is impossible for mortal man to strip another of his unalienable rights. It is impossible of even a majority of mankind to strip the minority of their rights. The reverse would also be the case. It is impossible to give away, transfer, or in any way surrender Unalienable rights. Regardless of whether someone even refuses to recognize them as it pertains to some particular person or group of people, that does not impact the existence of those rights as a part of their humanity. Regardless of whether or not he sees the origin of those rights as from God, from nature, or from a sort of combination of the two, they are theirs.
There is a difference between giving up a right, and giving up on exercising a right. The exercise of a right must needs always be considered inalienable. There is a phrase that states:
“You don’t have any rights you aren’t willing to fight for.”
The meaning behind this statement is true in a very real way. In a practical sense, it may seem as good as gone when someone chooses not to exercise this or that right, but, it should be understood that the rights’ existence will always be an inherent part of any person’s being. In other words, even someone who gives up and refuses to exercise an unalienable right, cannot change the fact that he has, and will continue to have that right, as a natural part of his existence.
In terms of government’s role in relation to these individual fundamental rights, the Declaration of Independence goes on to state that “to secure these” unalienable “rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The Bill of Rights include the phraseology that indicates this mindset as well. For example, the First Amendment of the Constitution includes this protection:
“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.”
Notice that the Declaration doesn’t declare that it is the role of government to create, grant, or to give rights, but to secure and protect already existing natural rights! Notice that the Bill of Rights doesn’t grant freedom of speech, or even mandate that Congress grant it! It merely states that the Congress shall not abridge the exercise of the people’s unalienable right to freedom of speech. Government’s only proper function is to help secure and protect rights such as these!
If we accept the premise that government is the source of rights, we must accept the corollary that government can take away, deny, or re-claim the rights that it “gives.” And at that point, where would the line be drawn in terms of legitimate government action? In addition to that point, isn’t it an interesting thought, in this context, that the government is made up of people in the end, anyways? Isn’t that an extreme irony of any collectivist, tyrannical system which violates individual rights?
Frederic Bastiat, the French political economist, stated it so succinctly in relation to the function of laws and statutes in society:
“Existence, faculties, assimilation – in other words, personality, liberty, property – this is man. It is of these three things that it may be said, apart from all demagogic subtlety, that they are anterior and superior to all human legislation. It is not because men have made laws, that personality, liberty, and property exist. On the contrary, it is because personality, liberty, and property exist beforehand, that men make laws.” (The Law, pg. 2)
As Bastiat pointed out, it would necessarily have to follow, at the point of recognition of the existence of fundamental human rights, that man’s rights are antecedent, and superior to any government! Once again, the origin of rights are found in the origin of man! In fact, a government’s legitimate existence, in which it would actually benefit all the people within its jurisdiction, would thus, necessarily, have to be merely an exercise of those rights! And thus, when government oversteps its bounds set by its inherent purpose for existence, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…”!!
For example, since the people all individually have the right to self-defense, they can then logically exercise and extend that right via the hiring of a sheriff! But if, at any point, that sheriff abuses power and threatens the very rights his post was created to help protect, who would argue that the “employer,” if you will, has no right to fire the “employee”??
Equality is another word often used in accurately describing a fundamental natural right. With these rights, there is (1) equality of existence of those rights between persons, as well as, (2) equality in value in relation to each person. Not only do those same rights equally reside in every person, but no single person’s rights are more valuable than another’s!
Now, it should be pointed out, that we are not talking about equal results! That is up to the individuals themselves to decide. That would obviously be dependent upon their use of their own respective faculties, resources, etc., in relation to their surrounding situational circumstances. It is up to the results that come from their actions. That is what will determine the outcome of their situation and place in life, not any sort of attempt to guarantee “equality” that can never be successfully forced, especially by the hands of persons in government, without the symptoms of poverty, famine, to say nothing of societal suicide! A government that attempts to enforce social justice would necessarily have to be a government by starvation! If the communist experiments don’t show this in history, the author does not know what will!
Now, that being said, for rights not to be recognized as natural to every person, then, obviously, the word equal within this context would not be accurate. Thus, for a right to be equal, not only would everyone have to be able to claim it at the same time, but the value of each person’s rights would have to be equal! It is the author’s claim that that is the actual case with or without a government. Even in a monarchy, the king has no more natural rights, and his rights are no more valuable, than even the poorest pauper on the Earth, let alone within the kingdom he rules.
So, could any person have a right to another person’s life? If not their life, how about a right to another person’s extension of life in the past, as seen in the property they acquire? How about their time and/or services? If the answer to any of these questions happened to be “yes”, how could rights ever be considered equal, and how could they ever be called natural? If this faulty premise was assumed to be the case, what would be the logical foundation for any criticism of slavery itself?
That being pointed out, it would necessarily have to follow that natural, and/or fundamental rights, or the “just claims” of any person, could only be those rights which everyone could simultaneously claim and/or exercise without forcing another to serve their needs or purposes. Once again:
Fundamental Rights are those rights which everyone can simultaneously claim and/or exercise without forcing another to serve their needs or purposes.
So, do people have a fundamental right to life? liberty? the pursuit of happiness, as long as they don’t criminally hinder another’s ability to do so? Yea’s all around.
But how about a fundamental right to “free” public education, or health care, or any other service that involves other people’s paid professions? How about a fundamental right to various tax incentives? How about a person even somehow having a fundamental “right” to society, or to a government involving anyone else besides themselves? No. No. No.
The difference, if not obvious enough, is the fact that no one can possibly have a fundamental right to another person’s life, service, time, or money. Remember, if that were the case, there is no possible way for the word equal to be used constantly surrounding the word right, and for it to have, in the end, any real meaning and value!
Rights such as the right to life, freedom, self-defense, conscience, self-government, contract, barter, associate, freely speak, boycott, petition, peaceably assemble, to religious observation, privacy; the right to honestly acquire property, to secure and protect it, to control its use, to individual commerce in relation to it, etc,, etc, etc. was enshrined in the governmental system of the united States. While property taxes, “free” public education, welfare statism, and even warfare statism which comes through with the existence of a standing army, are all symptoms of us, as a people, abandoning those very same principles.
Once again, a REAL and legitimate fundamental right would have to be something everyone can simultaneously claim and/or exercise without forcing, even with the use of government force, anyone else to cater to one’s own desires, needs, or purposes. Thus, it must be assumed that the exercise of rights would naturally be within the bounds set by the equal rights of others.
In summary, and as was stated by Thomas Jefferson long ago, and as will be covered in more detail in articles to come:
“Our legislators are not sufficiently apprised of the rightful limits of their powers; that their true office is to declare and enforce only our natural rights and duties, and to take none of them from us. No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another; and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him.” (Letter to Francis Walker Gilmer; Memoirs, Correspondence, and Private Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 4, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, ed., 1829, pp. 288-290.)
But, ultimately, in understanding and applying these principles, it is entirely up to us.