The Declaration of Independence states that the purpose of government is to secure the rights of man. Most Americans know and assent to the stirring words:
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.
These words are immortal; they are what America stands for. Sadly, they now apparently mean next to nothing.
What does it mean to have rights? A right is an absolute political claim. If you have right to some land, other people ought to permit you to have it. If you have a right to vote, nobody should prevent you from voting. If animals have rights, then we mean that no one ought to harm them. Rights are political claims because they pertain to what the law can or can’t force you to do, and what it can or can’t force others to do for you.
Rights are not a physical property of human beings. They aren’t encoded in your DNA, rooted in your hair follicles, or readable via an iris-scanner. But they aren’t just a moral fashion statement, either: it’s wrong to say someone has a right simply to cheer for whatever the right stands for. I think it would be grand if people would travel to Mars. However, that alone doesn’t give someone a right to travel to Mars. Moreover, if you have a right, you have a right to do wrong, too. Your right to vote isn’t just a right to vote for good candidates: it’s a right to vote for the bad ones, too, if that’s your choice.
How can you tell a pseudo-right from a real one?
In fact, rights are principles. Properly understood, they are objective moral principles that provide the foundation for a political-legal order. No law should violate rights. Rights are “self-evident” and “unalienable” because they are derived from facts about human nature. They are principles defining the fundamental freedoms and responsibilities that people need to have in society, if we are to live and flourish.
Rights pertain to individuals, not groups. They derive from the basic nature of each individual human. So, they do not pertain directly at the “group” level of, say, country, tribe, religion, or race, because all those groupings are made up of individuals. Individuals can change the groups they belong to, but the groups can’t make do without individuals. Most fundamentally, it is individuals who think, act, and choose, not groups. Moral responsibility lies within individuals first, and with groups only by aggregation. It is individuals who live and die, suffer or achieve happiness. Find a happy club, town, office, or school, and you’ll find happy individuals there.
Ayn Rand was not the first, nor the last, person to understand the meaning of individual rights. Individual rights are a basic thread in classical liberalism and libertarianism. But Rand was rights’ clearest, most passionate and most systematic explicator. Following and expanding on the arguments of John Locke, Rand, like the Founders, understood that individual rights were unitary: they identify aspects of the freedom one needs to act, if one is to live in harmony with others.
The right to liberty is the right to be free to act as one chooses.
Thus “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is not a well-meaning but vacuous bromide. It is, in fact, a pretty precise specification. The right to life is the right not to be killed. It is the right not to be injured or harmed in one’s body. The right to liberty is the right to be free to act as one chooses. This is crucial to one’s life because it is through one’s productive work that one gains the goods one needs to maintain one’s life. The right to the pursuit of happiness is the right to aim for independent goals. This is what seeking happiness consists in, and to succeed in being happy is to succeed in living.
In 1774, the Continental Congress summarized the three basic rights as “life, liberty, and property” in their Declaration of Colonial Rights. And well they should have, because without the right to property, no right is worth all that much. If you have the “right” to your life, but not the right to your own food, you won’t live long. If you have the “right” to liberty, but are not free to create and own things, then your choices won’t do you much good. And good luck pursuing happiness if “happiness” is misunderstood to be totally disconnected from any physical things you might take joy in making; or want for their own sake; or need as means to a valued goal.
If you have the “right” to your life, but not the right to your own food, you won’t live long.
Indeed, what is freedom of speech, if you have no right to own a press, or own a home or hall where you can speak to others, or to own the means of transmitting your ideas? Such is the travesty of rights-talk today that while all bow before the words “freedom of speech,” the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (also known as the McCain-Feingold bill) has made it illegal for most citizens to spend their own money to circulate a political message, beyond certain very narrowly set limits.
The right to property is the basis of industrial civilization. It allows us to live in a society based on trade, where the exchanges we have are by mutual consent. Property is the basis of a positive sum, “win-win” society, because if you have a right to your property you gain from every purchase you make or contract you sign—or at least, it is your choice whether to take part or not in such ventures, and you remain uniquely responsible for yourself.
The three or four basic rights-in-one (or more: subdivide as needed) are rights to freedom to act. They identify a range of freedom one would have even if no other people were around. Indeed, if you lived life as a 21st-century Robinson Crusoe, you would have total freedom to think and act, and you could hold and keep any goods you could find or make. However, we are social animals. We can benefit so much from being in society that only the worst kind of community could drive us to try to live alone. But the point remains: the individual rights of life, happiness, liberty, and property preserve for you in the social context the freedom and responsibility that is yours in nature. And they deny you only the phony “rights” you would never have on your own: to kill and injure others, to take from others, or to imprison or enslave others.
In society, individual rights identify areas of freedom that everyone can enjoy equally.
Thus, in society, individual rights identify areas of freedom that everyone can enjoy equally. The obligations they impose on others are negative: to not interfere, to not coerce anyone. This is the basic principle that unifies all the individual liberty rights; it is the basic principle of a society of traders.
It is physical force to assault or murder someone. It is physical force to restrain a person and deprive him of his liberty. Likewise, it is physical force that you must use to cut a person off from the things that will make him happy. It takes physical force to deprive someone unjustly of his property.
Notice that respecting individual rights is not pacifism. To respect rights is never to initiate force against others; to defend rights often requires that we use force against those who, by attacking or robbing us, show their contempt for our freedom.
There are harms people can do to each other that don’t involve force. But the difference is this: force hits at one’s very ability to live, while other harms are more psychological or contextual. It hurts, for example, to have your heart broken by a lover who betrays you. Yet, if you retain your liberty you can pick up the pieces, recover, and seek new hope for love.
Many economic harms don’t involve the initiation of force. It’s horrible to lose your job, for instance, but if all that happens is that you are fired, or your employer collapses, you retain your liberty. In that case, you can put your skills to work supporting yourself. And as long as others retain their liberty, you can offer them your talents and productive ability, looking for a new win-win position. And of course liberty, especially the freedom to own and use property, gives everyone strong reasons to seek out waste and lost opportunities, and to find new and ever better ways of producing the goods we need. This expands opportunity and wealth for everyone. It’s no accident that the societies with the most economic freedom—like Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the U.S.—are also the richest, with the lowest unemployment rates.
Sadly, since the rise of socialism and the “progressive” Left early in the twentieth century, the language of rights has become contaminated with a nearly endless wish-list of worthy-sounding goals. There is nowhere better to start than the “Four Freedoms” championed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and honored in the United Nations’ “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
The language of rights has become contaminated with a nearly endless wish-list of worthy-sounding goals.
The “Four Freedoms” are: 1) freedom of speech and expression, 2) freedom of religion, 3) freedom from want, and 4) freedom from fear. The first pair are extensions of the basic liberty rights: if you have liberty of person and property, then surely you have the freedom to hold whatever beliefs you care to and to communicate whatever you are willing and able to. But the second pair cannot be rights at all. To be alive is to have needs and to always be able to benefit from something more. Only the dead are truly free from want.
Of course, Roosevelt meant by “freedom from want” that somehow people have a right to some basic sustenance, shelter, and some other preferred list of “basic goods.” But what about the people who must provide these things? They must suffer unjust taxation, conscription, or regulatory exaction—to force them to produce and distribute the “basic goods.”
And apparently, once they have received the “basic goods,” people are no longer supposed to feel fear. Only a very poor student of human psychology could make such an assumption. People’s emotions follow largely from what they believe and value. So fear can no more be eliminated from life than can value and belief. In Roosevelt’s Promised Land, will students fear no test results? Will marketers fear no shortfall in sales? Will presidential candidates never again fear the results from Florida? Will all dogs be muzzled so that no child feels fear at a bark? A so-called “right” isn’t worth the name if it consists in stealing the freedom of others. But it kills clear thinking completely to claim as a “right” that which could never exist.
It is simple to tell a pseudo-right from a real one. Ask: what initiation of force is involved in violating this right? And: who must act to enjoy this right? If force must be initiated by, or on the part of, the rights-holder, it is a pseudo-right. If others, not the rights-holder, must do the work for the rights-holder to enjoy his “freedom,” it is no freedom at all.
To read the press or study politics today, one might think that government was a special social organization with the unique power to express the will of the people. But in fact, government is the organization which controls the guns. It is government which sets the effective rules controlling the use of force within its jurisdiction. These rules are the law. It is the law which determines what freedoms one has in practice, and what actions are subject to reprisal by government forces like the police and the military.
Government is the organization which controls the guns.
Rights are foundational to any liberal system of government. Cementing rights principles into the basic law of the land is the only way to ensure that the law never encroaches on our natural and proper freedoms. The degree to which the law respects and defends rights is our best measure of the amount of freedom a government allows. No human institution should exist except to promote human life and happiness. This applies with especial urgency to governments, because their coercive powers have traditionally been abused to rob, kill, and enslave. The worst crimes against humanity have been perpetrated by governments or groups fighting to become governments: consider the Nazi Holocaust, or the killing fields of Cambodia, or the Taliban misrule in Afghanistan. By contrast, the countries most propitious to life, whose populations have the longest average life expectancies, tend to be those that come closest to fully respecting the objective individual rights.
It is as urgent today as it ever was that our governments recognize and respect our rights. The freedom we need to live and be happy, the freedom that modern civilization arose from and depends on, is under pressure from all sides. Conservative factions on the right demand the government curtail freedom of conscience, and insist that the state promote faith in God. Interest groups clamor for economic regulations and subsidies to support their jobs or pet projects—and to hell with the rest of the country that will have to pay for it. Leftists demand more and great, free goodies—subsidized health care, subsidized food, subsidized green technologies, subsidized housing. Never mind who is to pay for it. Populists demand restraints on trade. Environmentalists want bans on using land. Self-proclaimed defenders of “democracy” work to make it harder and harder for outsiders to organize politically, and easier for office holders to avoid serious election-year challenges.
Against this tide of pragmatism and special pleading stands our real need for freedom. The individual rights of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness are, when properly understood, the standard by which judge our government, and the ideal toward which reform should aim.
William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.