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Libertarianism Explained: What Are Rights? – Learn Liberty

September 20, 2019


What are natural rights? Well what are rights
in the first place? Most generally, rights are moral concepts that establish the conditions
within which we interact. When we say you can’t do that, we might mean that it’s
literally impossible to do it, but we might also mean simply that to do it would be wrong.
When we invoke rights, we’re insisting on a certain kind of interaction not because
another kind is impossible but because another kind would be wrong. That’s why we can speak
of violating someone’s rights. You can’t make a round square means it can’t be done.
You can’t kill Fred means it would be wrong to do it. But do we have natural rights? By
nature we have spleens. If you cut me open you would find my spleen, but you wouldn’t
find any of my rights. So let’s see if we can figure out what natural rights might be. If you watch any TV at all, you probably know
that you have the right to remain silent and to have an attorney present during questioning—but
not if you live in North Korea. The famous right to remain silent is a legal right. It’s
a feature of the legal system we happen to have. People in other countries may or may
not have the right to an attorney. Similarly, if you’re 18 you have the right to vote
but not if you were 18 in the 1960s. In 1971 the Constitution was amended to extend voting
rights to 18-year-olds who had previously not enjoyed that right. A few years later,
18–year-olds lost the right to drink beer. These are examples of legal rights or constitutional
rights. We have whatever legal rights the lawmakers
say we have, and they can change at any time. But the Declaration of Independence refers
to inalienable rights. Those aren’t the sort of things that can change. Are there
any such things? Because we get legal rights from the lawmakers, people sometimes make
the mistake of saying that rights come from the government. But when the American colonists
declared independence from Britain they got rid of their government. Did that mean that
they no longer had rights? Nope. That’s the whole point. They thought they had rights
that didn’t come from the government. Although constitutional rights are products
of constitutions, the rebellious colonists thought that the right to live and be free
was a right that we had by nature and the point of even having a government at all was
to protect those rights, protecting rights we already have. This is the essence of classical liberalism
and the revolutions it inspired. In the old days, people claimed that kings ruled by divine
authority, so the king’s rule was natural. Rights were permissions from the king, an
artificial construct. To the classical liberal way of thinking, the right to live and be
free is natural, and governments are artificial—institutions created to help protect or enforce those rights.
So it turns the old model completely around, literally a revolution. But why should we think there’s a natural
right to live and be free? One way to think about it is this. Is it your natural condition
to exist only as a means of sustenance to another organism, or do you have an independent
existence? We’re all Homo sapiens. The old model had us thinking that the so called nobility
were literally a better breed of person naturally suited to rule over the so called commoners
whose inferior dispositions made them suitable only to serve. I’m pretty sure that’s
not true. What do you think? So if the right to live and be free is natural,
then governments are doing well when they protect your rights and doing wrong when they
violate your rights. As much as possible, then, the legal system should create rights
that are compatible with and don’t contradict your natural rights.

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