If a precise understanding of rights is not generally agreed upon, a political system designed to protect individual liberty cannot be achieved. The signers of the Declaration of Independence declared that rights are inalienable; i.e., incapable of being lost or surrendered. To avoid any misunderstanding, something this important must be clearly defined. Lincoln pointed out the danger of a vague definition when he said:
The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word, we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty means for each man to do as he pleases with himself and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the products of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things called by the same name-liberty. It follows that each of the things is, by the perceptive parties, called by two different and incompatible names – liberty and tyranny.
The world today, just as in Lincoln’s time, is still in need of a good definition for the word liberty. But more than that, we need determined people who believe in and are willing to defend liberty.
Those who dare to use the word liberty when promoting violence and tyranny must be clearly exposed. The tyrants must be identified and never confused as friends of freedom. If a battle must occur -- which inevitably it must since liberty and tyranny cannot coexist – let it never be supposed that two factions advocating liberty are battling one another. The conflict must be clearly between liberty and tyranny.
The world today, just as in Lincoln’s time, is still in need of a good definition for the word liberty.
In order to minimize the confusion, we must do our best to define rights. A right is a natural or God-given permit received at birth, to act in one’s own self-interest with total control over one’s own life and property as long as others are not injured nor their property taken or damaged. Liberty does not come as a grant from the state. The state can only expect those funds from the individual required to guarantee that the rights of all are equally protected. Ideally those funds would be collected through a voluntary agreement between the state and each citizen. The role of the government in a free society is limited to settling disputes when the voluntary courts fail. Minimal police activity is warranted when private security falters. The protection of our geographic borders providing adequate national security from outside threats is a proper function of a government dedicated to protecting individual freedom.
Individuals in a free society must have the right to keep the fruits of their labor if the concept of individual rights is to have any meaning.
There is no conflict between what is called “natural” rights and “God given” rights. The Founding Fathers said we were endowed by our “Creator” with our rights, but they also had no qualms with the term natural rights. It certainly seems reasonable that life and liberty come as a magnificent gift from the Creator. Obviously these cannot come from a government official, an act of Congress, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, or the Magna Carta. Quite to the contrary, tragically governments over the centuries have done a lot more to destroy this natural gift than they have to secure it.
I see no conflict between the self “ownership” concept associated with natural rights and those who, for religious reasons, believe their life is “owned” by God. One is a political concept and the other a religious concept. Obviously no one can dictate another’s religious belief. What one does with one’s life and property is a personal decision and it may or may not include religious beliefs. In a free society a person can “turn his life over to God” or squander it as he chooses. The important thing is that the state not be permitted to assume any ownership role of the individual.
A society built on the principle of individual rights rejects the notion that the state should protect a citizen from himself. Government cannot and should not protect against one’s own “unwise” decisions. Freedom is impossible once a government assumes a role in regulating the people’s eating, sleeping, drinking, smoking, and exercise habits. Once government believes it has an obligation to improve or protect the people physically it will then claim it can protect them economically and intellectually. It leads to a regimented society, hostile to individuals who cling to the notion that their lives and liberty are their own. Conservatives certainly must be reminded that “civil” liberty is the same as economic liberty, and present-day liberals must be told that economic liberty deserves the same protection that the written and spoken word under the First Amendment. Preemptive regulations of either literary or commercial activity, for any reason, are prohibited in a free society. Fraud and libel are crimes that, when proven in a court of law, must punished.
The most important element of a free society, where individual rights held in the highest esteem, is the rejection of the initiation of violence. Initiation of force is a violation of someone else’s rights, whether initiated by an individual or the state, for the benefit of an individual or group of individuals, even if it is supposed to be for the benefit of their individual or group of individuals. Legitimate use of violence can only be that which is required in self-defense.
This means that all associations are voluntary and by mutual consent of both parties. Contracts drawn up without force or fraud must be rigidly adhered to. This sounds reasonable, and most people would agree this outline of mutually agreed-to associations. But it also means that free people have the right to discriminate – in choosing a spouse, a friend a business partner, an employer, an employee, a customer, etc. Civil rights legislation of the past thirty years has totally ignored this principle. Many “do-gooders,” of course, argue from the “moral high ground” for their version of equal rights, knowing that they can play the sympathies and the guilt of many Americans. Yet the real reason for some of these laws is less than noble. For instance, minimum wage laws are popular, but the proponents rarely admit that this protects higher paid union-jobs and it increases unemployment.
Total freedom of contract and association is what the “pursuit of happiness” is all about. Once this principle is violated, the gradual but steady erosion of our liberties can be expected unless the principle of individual rights is reestablished.
Free choice means that the incentive to produce is maximized, since it’s assumed that we can keep the fruits of our labor. In a free society, an individual benefits from wise and frugal decisions and suffers the consequences of bad judgment and wasteful habits. The state should neither guarantee nor tax success, nor compensate those who fail. The individual must be responsible for all of his decisions. Because some suffer from acts outside of their control, we cannot justify the use of violence to take from someone else to “help out.” People in need are not excused when they rob their neighbors, and government should not be excused when it does the robbing for them. Providing for the general welfare means that the general conditions of freedom must be maintained. It should never be used to justify specific welfare or any transfer of wealth from one person to another.
A free society permits narrow self-interest but allows for compassion and self-sacrifice. Greed, when associated with force or fraud, is not acceptable. A free society is more likely to survive if compassion is voluntarily shown for the unfortunate than if the poor are ignored. A healthy self-interest associated with a sense of responsibility for family and friends is far superior to a welfare state built on foolish self-sacrifice and violent redistribution of wealth.
A society that holds in high esteem the principle of individual rights is superior in all ways to a society that distorts the meaning of liberty and condones the use of government coercion.