In today’s political climate, there is a lot of talk surrounding our economic problems. In America as of this writing, we currently have an unemployment rate of 9.1% (actual numbers are higher when underemployed and those who have quit looking for a job are factored in), an annual federal budget deficit of $1.6T, and a total national debt of $14.6T. The stock market had been acting like a roller coaster and all economic indicators are suggesting that we’re in the grips of a severe recession.
Because of this situation, there is serious talk about looking at budget items that can be cut and eliminated. This is only rational considering that revenues are lower. However, while there are many who can agree that such items as foreign aid and the military spending can be trimmed, there are howls of protest whenever the subject of entitlement spending is brought up. That word, “entitlement,” suggests that things like social security, medicare, medicaid, unemployment insurance, etc. are rights — things Americans are entitled to.
This brings up the larger issue of rights — what are they and from where do they come? Rights are just claims. In other words, If I have a right to something, then I have a just (or right) claim to that thing. Using the example of entitlements above, the going belief is that Americans have a right to social security, medicare, etc. — they have a just claim to these things.
Given that definition of rights as just claims, we can speak of two kinds of rights — Natural (or moral) rights, and Political (or legal) rights. Natural rights are those rights that the founding fathers delineated in The Declaration of Independence when they wrote: “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.” First note that natural rights are self-evident, in other words, there is no need to offer proof to support the concept of natural rights, any rational person can agree that this is true. Second, natural rights are based on our being created by God. From a Christian worldview, I would argue that natural rights are self-evident based on the fact that we are created in the image of God. An atheist might wish to argue that natural rights come from our common humanity. Third, our natural rights are unalienable; i.e., they cannot be abrogated or removed; we have them by virtue of our humanity. No one can take them from us and we can’t relinquish them (though they can be deprived and ignored). Finally, these rights have been enumerated as 1) Life, 2) Liberty, and 3) The Pursuit of Happiness.
On the other hand, political rights are those rights that are granted to us by the government. If we assume that entitlements are ‘rights,’ then these would fall into the category of political rights. There is nothing natural, or unalienable, about social security. Other political rights would be our right to vote, our right to due process, our right to bear arms, and our right to free speech. Each of these rights are enshrined in the Bill of Rights and other amendments to the U.S. Constitution. However, there are many people in other countries who have none of those rights I just enumerated. Political rights are granted by governments and they can be taken away by governments.
For a long time, it was thought that all rights came from the government; that all rights were political rights. However, the idea of natural rights can be traced back to the Stoics in antiquity. We also see traces of natural rights in Catholic law of the early middle ages, but a full blown theory of natural rights doesn’t emerge until the Enlightenment with British philosopher, John Locke. A lot of Locke’s ideas — including that our natural rights are defined as Life, Liberty and Property — were incorporated into America’s founding documents.
Along with the intellectual development of natural rights came a change on the perspective of the role of government. As noted in the previous paragraph, the common notion was that rights came from the government. This was part and parcel with the concept of the Divine Right of Kings. With the breakthrough in the area of natural rights that occurred during the Enlightenment and the experiment with liberty that became the United States of America, there was a true revolution — a revolution of ideas, or a paradigm shift. No longer was government the grantor of rights, but the guarantor of rights. The Declaration of Independence continues:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.
The role of government is to protect the natural rights of the governed. Moreover, what the signatories of the Declaration were saying is that individuals create and give authority to the government, not the reverse. Governments are “instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The government must protect and defend the natural rights of its citizens. The government cannot abrogate the natural rights of a citizen without due process. The government must enact laws that protect and secure the natural rights of the citizens. Any political rights that the government creates, must not conflict with the natural rights of any of its citizens. That government that governs best is the government that not only protects the natural rights of its citizens, but also enacts political rights that flow from and support our natural rights.
Below is a video from LearnLiberty.org on Natural Rights. Enjoy!