Gadsden flag

The concept of “Rights” came up in a handful of posts in my news feed today. It got me thinking about the concept of “natural” rights and the fundamental, practical application of those rights.

Let’s start with this essay by Sheldon Richman at Reason.com. In it, Richman posits that for libertarians, there is only one “natural” right. In other words, there is only one right which comes from God or nature. It is “the right not to be aggressed against. All further rights are simply applications of, rather than supplements to, this basic right.” I’ll let you read the essay for a deeper understanding of the concept. The tl;dr version is simply that “people have a right not to be subjected to any initiatory use of force.” The word “initiatory” is particularly important and I’ll get to that in a bit.

Society works best when based on mutual, voluntary agreements. It doesn’t matter if it’s at the interpersonal level or at the level of a federal government. Nobody likes to be forced into things. A legal framework, therefore, should exist to protect against the initial use of force. This is, or rather should be, the role of government. This is also where the word “initial” comes into play.

You see, part of a government’s role is to punish those who break the laws protecting the one right, in its myriad applications. In doing so, it must use force such as putting the law breaker in prison or confiscating a portion of their property. The use of force, in those cases, is a secondary use of force. It is a right that society has delegated to the government.

The principle of delegation is important. A citizen could exert their own secondary force rather than relying on the government to do it for them. For example, when a man attempts to rape a women she can, and should, instigate a secondary use of force by blowing her attacker’s head off to stop it. Delegating the secondary use of force simply means that we, as a society, are letting the government at on our behalf. It does not mean that we, as citizens, have abrogated those rights from ourselves.

This brings me to an essay by Jazz Shaw at Hot Air. In it, he takes issue with Ed Morrissey’s assertion (and, by extension Richman’s) that natural rights exist under the law. Any law, not just those currently enforced by the United States. In his essay, Shaw states a fundamental truth about rights which is, at best, implied or, at worst, ignored. (Emphasis in original.)

If we wish to define the “rights” of man in this world, they are – in only the most general sense – the rights which groups of us agree to and work constantly to enforce as a society. And even that is weak tea in terms of definitions because it is so easy for those “rights” to be thwarted by malefactors. To get to the true definition of rights, I drill down even further. Your rights are precisely what you can seize and hold for yourself by strength of arm or force of wit. Anything beyond that is a desirable goal, but most certainly not a right and it is obviously not permanent. And that’s why you must be eternally vigilant and careful in protecting those “rights” we have established for ourselves as part of our imperfect attempts to interpret the will of the Creator.

The debates about what is and is not a right will go on “when men are fairy tales in books written by rabbits.” (The Last Unicorn (1982)) People like me will proclaim that rights should be guaranteed or protected by the government while others will proclaim that rights are created or granted by the government. In the end, when push comes to shove, rights are those things that we claim and protect for ourselves. It is also why tyrants are quick to make the dual arguments that rights are granted by the government and that citizens should be disarmed and leave the defense of their rights to the government.

It’s the argument that the way to stand up for your rights is through rallies, protests and marches on the capital. For all the noise that the Tea Party and Occupy movements made, what real difference did either of them really make? America didn’t win her independence from Great Britain because they held rallies and protests or wrote strongly worded letters to politicians holding court in the seat of government. As eloquent as Dr. King was, his dream would not have mattered one bit if people weren’t ready and able to carry out acts of defiance to seize their rights.

It’s fortunate that violence on the order of the American Revolution or the Civil War was not required in the case of the Civil Rights or Woman’s Suffrage movements. In those cases, “force of wit” carried the day over a pure “strength of arm” but the fact supports of both causes were preparing to take up arms gave bite to their bark.

We can talk all day about the philosophies of rights while those rights are eroded in the river of good intentions. We can cry from the mountain top about the proper role of government while liberties are infringed because “We have to do something!” It will continue, barely slowed by rallies, protests and strongly worded letters. In the end, our rights can only be maintained when men and women are willing and able to stand on Lexington Green and tell the tyrants, in no uncertain terms, that enough is enough.