Liberty: Rooted in Rights

Everyone wants to be free, to make his own decisions without interference. That's a no-brainer; if there are any exceptions beyond those unhappily born without the ability to manage for themselves, they are very few. I never met anyone who said “Rule me, please!”

Libertarians, however, add one crucial and distinguishing feature to that: We want everybody to rule themselves; we want everybody to be free of interference. Nobody else does. Everybody else either votes, or perceives nothing wrong with voting, yet voting in its nature endorses a system of interference with freedom.

So we believe in a thoroughgoing liberty, as a matter of philosophy, universally applicable. Everyone else wants liberty for themselves, but casually limits the liberty of others. We don't. That's the difference.

That's not just a philosophy plucked out of thin air, though; it's one developed rationally, from a certain fixed axiom – that every human has the right of self ownership. Those who deny that are denying reality, they are irrational. They are subordinating intellectual integrity to prejudice or myth.

The consequences are of course huge, and include the conclusion that all governments violate that basic human right, and that's quite a big pill for some folk to swallow. Naturally, government people are eager, so as to preserve their jobs and prestige, to spread a belief that we peons do not, in fact, have any such inherent or natural right. So they have manipulated Americans into submitting to a twelve-year indoctrination course which, among other myths, propagates the one that any rights we have are only those that government graciously provides. They employ “useful idiots” who help spread that nonsense that nobody has any other kind of rights.

In so doing, they greatly expand the range of those ersatz rights. While removing the one that matters (self-ownership, with all those derived from it), they add all manner of others: the right to an education, the right to a decent standard of living, the right to a job, the right to medical care, the right to be sheltered, fed, clothed, and so on. None of those exist in reality, for all of them are “rights” which can be provided only at the expense of someone else; hence, none is an universal right, but all are rather transfers from producers to parasites.

The alleged “right to govern” is interesting in itself. If every person has the right to rule himself, it follows directly and immediately that nobody has any right to govern anyone else. So, suppression of an understanding of the self-ownership right is a vital priority for government people. Better that peons be told nobody has any rights at all, than that we reason our way through to that conclusion!

Before asking Murray Rothbard to help us find the origin of rights, let me divert a moment to note that since all are (by right!) free to say anything, people are indeed free to spread the lie that nobody has any rights. For that matter, anyone is free to spread the lie that the earth is flat; but nobody has the right (or at least, the ability) to discover its edge. Anyone can spread the lie that gravity works upwards; but nobody has the right to jump unaided off a tall building and fly. So the right to free speech does have a practical limit; opinion is fine, but its limit is reality. Things are what they are, no matter what anybody says; A is A. Apples are not oranges. This is, in fancier language, the natural or metaphysical Law of Identity; and the undeniable truth of it was recognized by Aristotle, if not by someone earlier.

And so to Murray, Mister Libertarian himself. As STReaders will know, I don't see him as infallible; in my opinion, he was wrong about punishment, and he was wrong about how to bring about a free society, and maybe some other minor issues; but he was dead right about the other major ones, and he was not wrong about rights.

So clear was his thinking, in fact, that he expertly threaded his way through the assertion that if humans have rights, so do other animals. It's a treat to read his reasoning here, in Mises Daily; perhaps a quote will be useful. He wrote:

“For the assertion of human rights is not properly a simple emotive one; individuals possess rights not because we "feel" that they should, but because of a rational inquiry into the nature of man and the universe. In short, man has rights because they are natural rights. They are grounded in the nature of man: the individual man's capacity for conscious choice, the necessity for him to use his mind and energy to adopt goals and values, to find out about the world, to pursue his ends in order to survive and prosper, his capacity and need to communicate and interact with other human beings and to participate in the division of labor. In short, man is a rational and social animal. No other animals or beings possess this ability to reason, to make conscious choices, to transform their environment in order to prosper, or to collaborate consciously in society and the division of labor.”

We might think of some animals that are getting close, just as there are some humans who, unfortunately, fail to come anywhere close to the potential this description says we have; but fundamentally, Murray Rothbard is correct. We have rights because of our nature, as reasoning and choosing animals.

Those attributes also equip us as ethical animals, because morality is impossible without choice. When choice is absent or denied, there is no “right” and “wrong;” and rights, justice and morality are interdependent. If the right of self-ownership does not exist, it cannot be wrong for government to deny it! And if it's not wrong to deny that right, there can be no justice either, and any form of justice is a mockery. That is why government, which acts as though we had no inherent rights, can never administer justice – only the pretense of justice.

Take a simple example: Able has a bicycle and a gun. At his yard gate is the kind of warning notice sometimes seen among backwoodsmen who are long on ferocity but short on ethics: “Keep Out. You Take My Stuff, You Die!” But along comes Baker, takes his bicycle, flips him the finger and starts to ride away. Able then picks up his gun and shoots Baker dead.

If no rights to life (or, therefore, property) exist, that's that. End of story. Able had no right to retain his bike, and Baker had no right to preserve his life. It was just a matter of who was the stronger; might made right.

That's the principle on which government works, too. Power, from a gun barrel. Any who assert the absence of rights make themselves government spokesmen, paid or otherwise.

But if rights do exist, the story does not end there. Able has taken from Baker far more than Baker took from Able; there is an injustice. Able was immoral. Baker was cycling away, not posing Able any immediate threat; Baker did owe him the bike, plus compensation for having to do without it and to cause Baker to make him whole again, but he owed nothing else. A justice industry would set out to bring about that restitution – not a penny more, nor a penny less. But if neither has any rights, all that is impossible; it would have no rational basis to exist.

Real justice is, therefore, the restoration of lost or damaged rights. If there were no rights, there could be no justice. And if no justice, then no peace.

The concept of rights – the real ones, derived from the right of self-ownership - runs all through Rothbard's writings, with hundreds of references, for he regarded it as fundamental to the libertarian philosophy. For example, after two pages of close reasoning that examines any possible alternative to the self-ownership premise, at the foot of page 29 of For a New Liberty, he wrote, “The Libertarian therefore rejects these alternatives and concludes by adopting as his primary axiom the universal right of self-ownership, a right held by everyone by virtue of being a human being.” Notice, that doesn't say or mean that the right is some kind of add-on or afterthought bestowed by a creator, rather that it's something integral to the nature of humans, a vital attribute of humanity.

As far as I know, this basic understanding has never been refuted, and is bedrock libertarianism as laid down by the scholar who is very widely regarded as the founder of the modern libertarian movement; the book is sold and admired on the strength of its subtitle, “The Libertarian Manifesto.” On that basis, I must say that yes, of course, anyone is free to deny that rights exist; but he is not free to do so while also pretending to be a libertarian. That would be to fly a false flag, to be a liar, a deceiver, a hypocrite. Freedom is, as above, limited by reality. A is A; the natural Law of Identity remains in force.

It may be that some are so adamant in opposing the idea of rights that they would therefore no longer claim to be libertarians; fair enough! At least that's honest, and abandons the hypocrisy. In that case, though, I'll end by returning to my opener; libertarians alone desire freedom for everyone, not just for themselves. To reject libertarianism is therefore to assert either that some élite (chosen how?) alone shall be free, or that nobody can be free (very likely).

That's the kind of world in which we now live, and in my understanding, that's the kind of world whose very roots participants here desire to strike.

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