Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.”     Abraham Lincoln

December 7, 2005

Keep Your Powder Dry

by Eric

Over the years, I’ve had many dialogues with people about inherent rights and constructed rights, and why they are different. I’ve also tried to distinguish between capitalism and corporatism, and why the are different. The issue that continues to crop up is that most people, even though they have taken classes on politics in high school, and even college, appear not to have been exposed to the Enlightenment philosophies that our political system is founded, nor the Age of Reason thinking that preceded them, or the Rationalist that followed. Unfortunately, without understanding those philosophies, it is impossible to understand why the Constitution and government of the United States are constructed as they are. In the next few paragraphs I will attempt to lay out the basis for the idea of inherent rights, and how they differ from constructed rights.

Inherent rights are also known, in the Rational tradition, as negative rights, also expressed as “freedom from … “. Constructed rights are known as positive rights, also expressed as “freedom for … “. To understand why this is important, you have to start with the foundation of classic liberal philosophy, that political power originates with the individual, not with society, or anything else external to the individual. The individual also has inherent rights that exist prior to society, or outside of society. And these rights exist regardless of society. Put another way, one does not require a society for these rights to exist. And that is why we call them inherent. Two are easy to understand, life and liberty. Obviously, whether society exists, or not, you, the individual have life, which confers on you the right to live and defend your life. Liberty is also clear and logically obvious. Without society you are, in fact, free to do as you choose. Thus, you have a right to your liberty, although you may agree to some limitation on that right in order to gain other things of value to you. Property though, that is harder to argue. And it is often the point where folks get hung up. Most left wing political philosophies do not agree that individuals have the right to property, or take the position that their right to property is very limited, stems from society or the state and is essentially a state of renting the property, rather than having a right to it.

Here’s how we establish what inherent rights exist. Let’s suppose I live alone on this deserted island. And suppose that, during my time alone, I build a house, plant crops, cultivate a front yard, etc. Now, suppose that you show up on the island and decide that you should be able to live in the house that I built. Should you be able to whether I want you to, or not? Or, have I, in fact, by improving the land and constructing a dwelling established it as my property? And, if you try to move in without my say so, will I defend the house and land that I have improved and cultivated? Should I be able to, or do you have some right to that land regardless of my situation?

The basis of modern property law is to protect this “natural”, pre-society ownership and to leave you and I free to do more than simply defend our property from those who would take advantage of our work to improve our land. In fact, American law encapsulated this very idea with the Homestead Act. The Homestead Act was one of the few times a government actually explicitly captured the idea of this right within a law. The reason that it did happen is that the United States is one of the only countries ever founded upon classic liberal philosophy. Since most governments in history have existed based on the belief that political power originates with an elite of some sort, this isn’t really unusual. The reality, if you explore the idea logically, is that governments were either established to continue an elite in power (the successful conqueror theory of government) or to protect a group of people from the successful conqueror. This is fairly logical, if you stop and think about why and how humans would have banded together in groups, created rules (laws) of behavior and set up certain people to make decisions. In fact, even in the successful conqueror group it seems logically obvious that, by and large, the followers of the original leader would have chosen to follow him (perhaps not all, but many) because he would provide them with better protection of their own right to life, liberty and property, even if that would mean infringing on the rights of others who were outside the group.

Going back to our argument that inherent rights exist in a natural state, or prior to society, it becomes clear that in a natural state constructed rights don’t exist. You don’t have an inherent right to healthcare. Healthcare doesn’t exist without society. If you live on a deserted island, all by yourself, there is no healthcare, nor can you establish it, as you could establish ownership of your property. Healthcare is a “right”, constructed by society. Normally we call things like this privileges, except in our new political philosophy, the so-called neo-liberalism (that’s what democratic socialism in the USA was called in the 1930′s by the way), privileges are now considered rights. It’s as if we have removed the idea that some things exist with or without society and some things can only exist with a structured society. We, in this country, have lived in a state where our inherent rights are not threatened by the infringing activity of a conqueror for so long that we have forgotten that such a thing can be. And now we decide that privileges are rights. Yet, if this comes to pass, we will soon remember the truth of the proposition. Most of us who have grown fat, dumb and lazy will learn the lesson the hard way that constructed rights are privileges of a rich society and inherent rights must be defended by force to be kept. The law of the jungle rules mankind, there is no getting around it. We have constructed, for a short time, in this limited place, a society where the jungle rules are kept at bay, but this will not last. And when it ends, whether tomorrow or a century, or 5 centuries (but end it will, never doubt that) you had better keep your friends close, your enemies closer and your powder dry.

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5 Comments

  1. New Liberty Papers

    There’s a slew of new posts at The Liberty Papers worth checking out. Keep Your Powder DryA Citizen, Or A Subject?Clark Foam vs. the EPAGood stuff, good thoughts, longer expositions on classic liberal theory. Go check it out….

    Trackback by Eric's Grumbles Before The Grave — December 7, 2005 @ 6:55 pm
  2. Great reduction, Eric. Your points seem so obvious; it’s very frustrating (to me, at least) that more people don’t get it (or don’t want to get it, or have forgotten it).

    “…constructed rights are privileges of a rich society…”

    Interesting that a society, made rich on the basis on inherent rights, would feel compelled to hobble itself with constructed rights while clearly sacrificing the inherent rights in the process. If Marx didn’t predict this outcome, then Grimm did in “The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg”.

    Comment by Brock — December 7, 2005 @ 10:59 pm
  3. OK…I’m an idiot. Hit submit before checking that the goose is Aesop’s, not Grimm’s. Apologies.

    Comment by Brock — December 7, 2005 @ 11:01 pm
  4. This looks familiar, so much so that I will simply refer to the article I wrote back when last I read it.

    http://tfsternsrantings.blogspot.com/2005/05/author-of-liberty.html

    Comment by TF Stern — December 8, 2005 @ 2:10 pm
  5. It is familiar. I rewrote it somewhat, but it’s an older post of mine.

    Comment by Eric — December 8, 2005 @ 9:46 pm

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