Monday, December 26, 2016
Understanding Your Most Fundamental Rights, Part I
by Bill Norton, CSG Administrative Staff
“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.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers by the consent of the governed,…”
That quote, from the Declaration of Independence sums it all up—we all have equal rights from nature and nature’s God and laws are established with our consent to protect those rights. Once understood, these simple truths make it easier to understand the proper role of government and all other principles of liberty fall into place.
Many Americans behave as if government somehow gives us our rights and has the authority to distribute and redistribute those rights. This assumes government existed before our rights. The French statesman Frederic Bastiat clarified the truth of the matter when he said: “Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.”
It is important to understand where our rights came from in order to distinguish which government policies protect those rights and which policies violate them.
“Self-evident truths” are truths that are so obvious, so rational and so morally sound that their authenticity is beyond reasonable dispute. Simply put, it is just the way things are. Self-evident truths are natural laws and natural laws, once discovered, learned and understood, require no additional proof. Natural law is the natural reaction to an action—“what goes up must come down,” “equal and opposite reaction,” etc. There are natural law principles in everything around us from the natural laws of science to natural laws of human happiness and even natural laws for good government.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson lists a few of the most fundamental self-evident truths.
“All men are created equal.” This presupposes, first of all, that there is a Creator. The Creator made all human beings equal. It is obvious that we are not all equal in every way. We come in all different shapes and sizes. We have different talents, needs and wants. We will have different outcomes to our work and lives. So, how are we equal?
People are equal in only two ways:
1. In our Rights and
2. Under the Law
Apart from these, we are not equal and never will be. It is interesting that when people attempt to pass laws to make us equal in other ways, it always violates one or both of the natural ways we are equal.
For example, if an individual has $10 and another individual has $20 and it is determined they should be equal in things, a law is passed to force the $20 individual to give $5 to the other. They now each have $15. But are they equal? Perhaps only in things. That law just made them unequal in their natural rights and under the law. Unequal in their rights because the property of the person with $10 was protected more than the person with $20. They were also made unequal under the law because the law favored the person with $10 over the other. While the law made them equal in things, it made them unequal in their rights and under the law.
When we violate nature, nature has a penalty. If we try to make ourselves equal in ways nature never intended, we actually make ourselves unequal in ways nature never intended.
“Unalienable rights” means we cannot be alienated from them. In other words, the rights cannot be taken from us without penalty or consequence. We inherit our natural rights from nature at birth. If we decide to run across a busy freeway and alienate ourselves from life, the penalty is death.
There are an innumerable number of natural rights. Jefferson listed the three core rights in the Declaration—“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” These are the most fundamental of all rights. Often, these three rights were listed by the founders as “Life, Liberty, and Property.” As discussed in the Federalist Papers, “Property” gradually evolved into “the Pursuit of Happiness” as we read it today.
John Adams described these rights as: “All men are born free and independent, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights, among which may be reckoned with the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”
The Declaration continues, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers by the consent of the governed…”
Mankind has always been plagued with tyrants who seek to trample on others’ rights and seize control over their lives. The primary way to gain control is by taking away or limiting the rights of life, liberty, or property. To protect their rights, people establish laws and appoint agents, or governments, to enforce those laws.
For example, do we have the natural right to move from point A to point B? Yes, we do. How do we know that nature has given us that right? Because are born with natural mobility and move about as need dictates. See? Self-evident truths are simple and obvious.
But can we take any path we want from point A to point B? No, because we may violate the property rights of others. We may have the right to move, but we do not have the right to trample others in the exercising of that right.
Would it make sense for each of us to negotiate our own path to the store, to work, or to a relative’s home with every property owner between us and our desired destination? No. It would make for a very unorganized and unproductive road system. So we decide to get together as a community, pool our money, buy property, pave that property, make a few rules, give each other a test to make sure we all understand the rules, then we issue drivers licenses to those who pass the test. We have the unalienable right to move from point A to point B, but only if we comply with the terms the property owner has set. In this case the terms the public has set.
Thomas Jefferson said: “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”
If two people insist upon exercising their rights to their fullest, and do so unfettered in any way, what will happen when those rights intersect? An accident will result, an accident that could potentially completely destroy, or take away, the rights of one or both individuals. So what do we do at an intersection? We put up traffic signs or lights. We govern it. Once governed, we may need to temporarily yield our rights to allow another to exercise their rights (as in the case of an emergency or to prevent one). Once the potential danger has passed, we are free to resume the exercise of our own rights.
This is why we institute government—to govern the intersection of rights. What gave us the right or authority to create that government? “By the consent of the governed” means we have the natural right to delegate the administration of our rights to our agents, the government.
That’s all government is—delegating the administration of our rights to another.
Once we delegate those rights to our agent, the government, have we lost the right to protect ourselves? No. Our rights are still unalienable. We are still ultimately responsible to protect our life, liberty, and property. But because we have agents delegated to the task, we enjoy the freedom to go about our lives.
The problem arises when we begin to ask government to do things that we ourselves do not have the authority to do. Frederic Bastiat said:“Government is a great fiction where everybody seeks to live at the expense of everybody else.”
Now just how far can our “consent” take us? Just how much can we delegate to our agents the government? Part 2 will answer these questions and more.
The Language of Liberty series is a collaborative effort of the Center for Self Governance (CSG) Administrative Team. The authors include administrative staff, selected students, and guest columnists. They may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more, go to CenterForSelfGovernance.com.