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Natural Rights, the Declaration, and the Constitution, Part 1


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We live in a country whose economic system is a welfare state and a government-managed economy and whose foreign policy is now based on an extensive overseas military empire and perpetual war, along with ever-increasing infringements on the civil liberties of the people.

The economic consequences of the welfare-warfare state have been enormous. Federal spending and debt are soaring out of control, with no end in sight. People are struggling just to make ends meet. The possibility of hyperinflation looms on the horizon.

We live in a country in which the federal government’s tax-collecting agency, the IRS, strikes fear into the hearts of the citizenry. It’s a country where regulatory bureaucrats do the same to people in the business and banking communities.

We live in a country in which the president can send the entire nation into war without the constitutionally required congressional declaration of war. It’s a country whose government engages in invasions, occupations, wars of aggression, kidnapping, torture, abuse, sanctions, embargoes, and assassinations, all with impunity.

Could this possibly be the America that the Founding Fathers envisioned when they separated from England in a violent revolution? Is this the type of government for which they were willing to pledge their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to establish?

I think most Americans would say, “No way!” This nation is as far away from what the Founding Fathers envisioned as they could ever have imagined. In fact, I think that most people would agree that as powerful as the British government was, the power it claimed and exercised over the British colonists paled in comparison with the type of powers claimed and exercised today by the U.S. government over the American people.

How did this happen, and is there a way out of this morass? Is there a way to get America back on the right track, the track toward freedom, free markets, and a constitutional limited-government republic?

The Declaration of Independence

To answer those questions, we need to return to fundamental principles. We need to examine the nature of rights and the role of government in a free society.

Let’s begin with the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

The most remarkable thing about the Declaration of Independence is not the list of reasons it gave for the British colonists living in the New World to take up arms against their own government.

Instead, what was remarkable was the part of the Declaration that enunciated the rights of man and the proper role of government in a free society. The message set forth was one of the most radical that people had ever heard, one that struck concern and fear in the hearts of government officials all over the world.

The Declaration declared that all men have been endowed by nature and God with certain unalienable rights. In other words, rights did not inhere only in the British citizenry, including those living in America. They inhered in all men, everywhere. Equally important, they didn’t come from government. They derived from nature and God.

The implications of such a declaration were earth-shattering. For centuries people had come to believe that their rights were really just privileges bestowed on them by the king — that is, by their government. As such, they considered it entirely proper for the king or the government to regulate, control, manage, conscript, and rule over the citizenry.

Yet here was the Declaration telling the people of the world something totally different: Your rights don’t come from government. They come from nature and from God.

And notice the question this claim raises: If rights pre-exist government — if they are inherent in the individual — under what legitimate authority does government regulate, control, or manage people, much less conscript them into serving it?

What is the nature of these inherent, natural, God-given rights that pre-exist government? The Declaration refers to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But it makes clear those three rights are not exclusive, for it states that such rights are among others that are not enumerated.

The rights of man

What are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? What do they mean? What do they entail?

Some people might think that liberty simply means not being in jail. But to a libertarian, such rights mean much more than that. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly come to mind. If the government can put you in jail simply for saying the wrong things, then you’re not free, even if you’re not in jail. Or if the government can shut down newspapers, radio and television, or the Internet, then people in that society cannot truly be considered free. Or if government can order you and your family to go to church every Sunday, then you’re not living in a free society. If government can prevent you from meeting with others, it’s violating your freedom.

But even all that is not sufficient for a free society. What about the right to keep and bear arms? Isn’t it necessary to ensure that people retain the right to resist their government if it becomes destructive of their rights?

What about economic liberty — the right to sustain your life through labor, the right to engage in mutually beneficial contracts and exchanges with others, the right to accumulate wealth, and the right to do whatever you want with your own money?

Here is one of the fault lines between libertarians and statists. Libertarians hold that economic liberty is as critical as all those other aspects of freedom. Statists hold the contrary, maintaining that economic liberty isn’t a right but simply a privilege bestowed by government, one that government can rightfully control, manage, regulate, or even take away.

Everyone would agree that each of us is born without governmental permission or involvement. It is evident our very lives come from nature or God. The government does not breathe life into anyone.

At the same time, each of us is born different from everyone else. Every person is unique. Everything about a person is different from everyone else. Skin color. Voice. Shape. Eyes. Fingerprints. Even the shape of your kidney is different from that of everyone else who has ever lived. Nature and God made each person one of a kind.

At the same time, it is evident that no one is born equal to anyone else. Sure, all are equal in the eyes of God, but they are unequal in every other respect. Every person is born with different characteristics, talents, and abilities, along with different handicaps and disadvantages.

Some people are born with great beauty, or with a beautiful voice, or with tremendous athletic skills, which enable them to become actors, opera singers, or football players. Others are born with other attributes and skills, enabling them to become farmers, mechanics, writers, lawyers, doctors, or homemakers. Some people are born with tremendous handicaps that they must overcome or learn to cope with.

One key to life is to discover what one’s particular talent or ability or passion is. While man has not yet been able to figure out the mystery of life and death, it’s tempting to suspect that it has something to do with developing as a human being. That process involves an inner journey of discovery, exploration, and development, a process that enables a person to mature, to develop, to grow into what he was naturally born to be.

That process necessarily entails figuring out where one’s talents, abilities, and interests are, and then pursuing them. Some people figure all that out at an early age, and then spend their lives happily developing them. Others reach their deathbed never having made that discovery, having lived what Thoreau called lives of quiet desperation.

Educational liberty

Now permit me to digress here to discuss another aspect of liberty that separates libertarians from statists: educational liberty.

Unlike statists, libertarians are firmly opposed to all governmental involvement in education. We consider the right to pursue an education to be as fundamental and inherent as all the other natural, God-given rights. Such a right entails each person’s choosing to pursue the education that best fits him, given his particular interests and passion. Most of the time this is done in consultation with one’s family, but how many times have we seen children break out of the plans their parents had for them to instead pursue their own dreams in life?

Education is a natural process. It’s not so much a cramming process, but rather a seeking process. A genuine education involves a person’s seeking out what he himself is interested in exploring, not in the determination by someone else of what needs to be crammed into his mind. In fact, the word “educate” is derived from the Latin word “educere,” which means “to draw out.”

Think about children from birth to six years of age. All children are filled with an awe of the universe. You can see it in their faces. When they’re awake they’re scanning everything within their sight, amazed by everything and absorbing everything. When they begin to speak, the most popular word they come to employ is that giant three-letter word that comes to bedevil parents: “Why?” They want to know how the universe works, and no matter what answer you give them, it’s never enough to dissuade them from hitting you with the next “Why?”

As the child grows older, the ideal is that he comes to discover what he was born to do — what his talents and abilities are, what his particular role in the universe shall be. That’s where the education comes in. That’s where the seeking happens. The awestruck kid who discovers what he likes and what he’s good at begins educating himself on how to get better. He’s not so much educating himself as fulfilling his passion. That’s what makes education exciting.

Now, jump ahead 12 years, when children are graduating from the public (i.e., government) schools that the law required their parents to send them to. How many such graduates have the same sense of wonder and awe for the universe they had when they were six years old?

I’d say very few of them. By that time, they hate everything they’ve come to believe is education: conformity, regimentation, cramming, memorizing, tests, term papers, and the like. They can’t wait for the whole thing to end. The 12 years of enforced regimentation and conformity that come with state schooling have smashed all sense of curiosity and love of learning out of most of them.

Those children who fight mightily to retain their sense of individuality, creativity, and imagination are made to feel like outcasts or weirdoes. If they persist, they’re put on such drugs as Ritalin until they come around and become one of the group. All too often, the 12 years of coercion have diverted many of them away from discovering and nurturing their own unique interests, talents, and abilities. Some discover their passion later in life. Some never discover it at all before they die.

In any event, it is evident that this part of life — seeking, developing, growing, maturing — is a gift that comes from nature and God, not from the government.

How does one engage in this process? Well, that’s where freedom comes into play. Where people have the widest possible freedom, there will be the widest opportunity for personal development and growth.

Part of the process is the making of choices — between bad and good, healthy and unhealthy, responsible and irresponsible, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical. Making choices saddles people with the responsibility of the consequences, a process that nudges but doesn’t force them to make better decisions in the future.

Economic liberty

This is where the principles of economic liberty come into play. One person discovers that he’s good at basketball. Another person senses a deep passion for English literature. As they both grow up, they revel in studying and developing their respective loves and passions.

At the end of the process, they enter the job market. The basketball player is offered $1 million a year. The literature major is offered $40,000 a year.

Is that fair? Sure it is, because it simply reflects the valuations of other people — that is, how they wish to spend their money. The difference in valuations doesn’t mean that the basketball player is a better person or that he worked harder than the literature teacher. It simply means that there is a greater demand among consumers for basketball than for English literature.

In the process of figuring out his future, a person might well choose a life of self-imposed poverty. Lots of priests and nuns do that. Most other people choose to enter the workforce, engage in economic exchanges with others and accumulate wealth. That of course is part of freedom as well.

As a person accumulates wealth, he’s faced with a growing array of choices. Should he save his money or spend it? Should he donate to the poor or not? Should he help his ailing parents or turn his back on them? Should he invest the money or place it in a savings account?

The choices are often not easy, but often that is the way that people grow and develop. Sometimes the people who must overcome tremendous disabilities and handicaps in life become some of the most fully developed and fascinating ones.

A critically important aspect to all this is that it’s all a natural part of being a person. The government did not create anyone. It does not endow anyone with any talents or abilities. Thus, no one has to be grateful to government for his life, his liberty, his wealth, his growth, or his pursuit of happiness. Those are all natural, God-given rights that inhere in all men, independent of government, not privileges that come from government.

So what do we need government for, anyway? The Declaration pointed out the reason: to secure the exercise of man’s fundamental natural and God-given rights. In other words, to protect people from murderers, rapists, robbers, burglars, and thieves, while at the same time leaving everyone else alone.

How did our ancestors bring the federal government into existence? Let’s now talk about the Constitution.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 edition of Freedom Daily.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.