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

“The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.”     Frederick Bastiat

December 9, 2005

Natural Rights doctrine – the missing piece

by Brad Warbiany

Some of you remember the debate raging a while back about whether property rights are natural rights, and exactly what that means. There were a few things that just didn’t sit right with me, but I haven’t had the time to really collect my thoughts and provide the response I wanted to give, until now.

To sum up, Eric, Robert, and I argued that property rights were a natural right because they exist inherent to man’s nature, and that is why we should push them as a society. Alice and JimmyJ pointed out that whether they exist in a state of nature or not, a right is only as valid as the society surrounding it. And Dada took that line of thinking to the next level and decided that socialism is perfectly valid because a society can define rights as they wish.

The disconnect for me was that I heard what Alice and JimmyJ said, and they are correct. Once you reach the point where you have a society and government, your rights are truly only worth the ability to back them up. America is still pretty well off on that score, but societies throughout history have proved that life, liberty, or property rights are quite easily discarded by an overbearing government. We can call them “natural rights” all we want, but a natural right to life doesn’t stop a corrupt government from putting a bullet in your head. To clear up this disconnect, we need a valid reason for why a society should be set up to recognize and protect those rights. In our debate, neither myself, Eric, or Robert explained why that should be the case. And that’s unfinished business.

First, we need to play a little catch-up. The basis is that we consider property rights to be a “natural right”. A natural right is a right that exists in a state of nature. Like the right to life and liberty, if there is nobody else around, you have a “right” to own property. It is a natural thing, simply by the way we humans are wired, to assume ownership of property. It may be as simple as taking possession of that property, but some sort of private property ownership, even if it is a matter of personal trinkets, pervades pretty much every known society. This is a significant distinction from something like the “right” to health care. In a state of nature, you have a right to provide your own healthcare, but as you’re alone, there are no doctors or hospitals that you can cry to about your “right” to force them to provide you with care. The definition of a natural right is that sort of right that is intrinsically linked to the very nature of us as human beings, and property ownership falls under that heading.

But that only covers the state of nature. Which is not the state of humanity, because we live in society, we have governments, and thus we need to do more than claim that something is “natural” for us to show why it should be a right within society. We institute government to help protect our rights, and thus we need a coherent statement why those rights should or should not exist within society. It becomes a lot more tricky, as frequently rights can be competitive. Some say that my liberty ends where my fist meets your nose. Some say that another’s right to life means that society has a right to take my property to feed that person. Many of us on the libertarian side have our thoughts on what we think the right answer is, but in the debate over natural rights, we never actually explained why natural rights should be protected. Especially as we do things as a society like restrict the liberty [natural right] of criminals who have shown their inability to respect other’s rights, we need a rational basis to support the protection of private property rights.

And this is odd, because the reason for it is very simple. In fact, I’m sure that in the previous argument, it was never explicitly stated because we who were arguing for it already believed the reason to be self-evident:

Natural rights doctrine is proper because it is consistent with human nature.

That’s it. We institute governments to protect those rights that we consider natural rights because humans fare best in that environment. Just as you don’t expect fish to survive on land, or for penguins to fly, humans do not fare as well as they can if their environment is unnatural.

Growing up in my teenage years, I used to state that I thought socialism would be great if it could work, but that it is contrary to human nature and doomed to failure. As I got older, I saw that humans were driven more by the idea of competition, the profit motive, and capitalism. Thus, I saw free-market economics as the best answer, but purely from a consequentalist position. It wasn’t a question of morality vs. socialism, it was simply the fact that it works. Not being religious, I never viewed morality as a code to be provided from a holy book, I thought it could be deduced, and thus I adopted a more consequentalist view of morality as it applies to state action. I finally came to the conclusion that a properly moral society is one that allows human nature and the problems of social interaction to be integrated into a cohesive system, that protects individual rights from overreaching by the state or infringement by other individuals.

There is one more crucial feature of human nature. Humans have an incredible capacity for love of their fellow human beings. A parent is willing to quickly subject their life, liberty, or property rights for the love of their child. Humans see the suffering of others, whether it is extended family, friends, the homeless, the poor, disaster victims, or Africans thousands of miles away, and want to help. There is a drive, which I think may be a natural instinct, to feel empathy with those in need, and to try to help. The incredible wealth of Western civilization (created due to the protection of life, liberty and property rights) has been gifted voluntarily by individuals to improve the conditions of those who need it. We choose, as humans, to use our liberty and choose to give our own property to help those that need it as charity, because of that empathy and love for the rest of humanity.

This is where the socialists get it wrong. Socialists, however, see this and think that this gives license to institutionalize and coerce this same behavior. This is a problem for several reasons. First, and most importantly, it is a violation of those liberty and property rights. Even most liberals are not happy when they file their taxes and see how much is disappearing, despite the fact that they support where it’s going. Motorcycle riders, even those like me who will not ride a bike without a helmet, absolutely detest the fact that in most states helmet usage is mandatory. Simply put, most people, with a natural inclination towards liberty and property ownership, do not like to have money forcibly taken from their paycheck, even if they support where it’s going.

Where does this lead? It corrupts that love for fellow humanity that drives such charitable giving. Just as I don’t want Paul to rob me for his own purposes, I don’t want the government to rob me to pay Paul. It creates a resentment in me for the recipient of that largesse, and a sense of entitlement and envy in the recipient for me. It produces the results of a natural process, charity, through unnatural means. And doing so supplants a working system with an unworkable system, because it replaces human nature with a system that produces animosity, resentment, class warfare, and hate. I give money to charity when able, when I feel that I can do good for those in need, because as a personal matter I feel a duty to do so. But I hate when government takes that money, applies it as a bludgeoning tool to try to solve problems without accountability, wasting large amounts in the process. I lose my voluntary part of the process, and thus feel like a slave rather than a philanthropist.

That doesn’t even begin to explain what socialism does to damage the economy in general, which has been covered so thoroughly elsewhere that I’m not going to go into it here.

Society is a complex beast. For a society to function efficiently, however, it must be designed in such a way to ensure that it is compatible with humanity. Despite the desires of the socialists, you can’t simply wish that humans will act the way you expect, and make it so. Humans are inexorably linked to the idea of private property, as evidenced by the backlash to Kelo. Understanding this as a precondition for designing a society is crucial to that society’s success. The evidence of America and the western world, compared to Russia, China, and Africa, shows this to be the case.

Why do we protect property rights? Why should we? Because it works. And the reason it works is that it is consistent with our nature as humans. Private property rights are a portion of the basis for Western society as important as the rights to life or liberty. Western society has been the engine for such incredible improvement in living conditions across the world that the most poverty-stricken souls in the Western world are better off than the kings of 100 years ago. If we continue to protect private property rights, what wonders and improvements will we see in another 100 years?

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2 Comments

  1. [...] I’ve reposted my piece on Natural Rights over at The Liberty Papers. [...]

    Pingback by The Unrepentant Individual » Some quickies while I hit the links… — December 9, 2005 @ 7:10 am
  2. How about the concept of self-ownership for having natural property rights? I mean you own your life, right? To deny that means you are a slave to someone else. To deny it means “others” own your life and can do what they want with it. And if you own your life and need to sustain your life, do you not need to make a claim to justly acquired property so that you can live? If you cannot make a claim to justly acquired property then how can you feed yourself? If you can only acquire what “others” say you can acquire, how are you not a slave to them? How is this not a violation of your property rights and your self-ownership?

    Comment by Brian J — December 11, 2005 @ 10:28 am

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