Government, Social Obligation and the Nature of Rights


Government, Social Obligation and the Nature of Rights

January 30, 2003

A recent reading of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government(1) provided me with important insights into the nature of rights. In today’s world, when the term “human rights” is used to demand the “right” to healthcare, social security, affirmative action, and cable television, while property rights are being violated for the “social good” and criminals are let off with a slap on the hand, the concept of rights is all the more important to understand.

As John Locke said, without a rational justification for the concepts of rights and government, we “will not give just occasion to think that all government in the world is the product only of force and violence, and that men live together by no other rules but that of beasts, where the strongest carries it, and so lay a foundation for perpetual disorder and mischief, tumult, sedition and rebellion.” We have seen this happen in many parts of the world, where government is solely a means for one group to benefit at the expense of another, without any notion of justice or individual rights. “Democracy” has become the ideal of social organization and solution to all social ills. Majority tyrannies (i.e. voting) have become the ultimate standard of right and wrong, while the Lockean notion that there is a higher law, namely the concept of natural rights, has been largely forgotten.

According to Locke, men are unique on this earth because they need to use their mind in order to make the goods necessary for their survival. Animals roam the earth, forage, and kill each other to survive, but man is alone in that he can and must use his mind to make his daily bread. As a corollary, while men deal with nature as causal agents, the deal with each other as moral agents. We don’t blame the tree for dropping a branch on our head, and we don’t imprison a mosquito for biting us: we simply avoid walking under old trees and wear repellent. According to H.H. Hoppe “Conflict… is not a sufficient prerequisite for ethical problems, for one can come into conflict also with a gorilla or a mosquito, for instance, yet such conflicts do not give rise to ethical problems. Gorillas and mosquitoes pose merely a technical problem. We must learn how to successfully learn to manage and control the movements of gorillas and mosquitos just as we must learn to manage and conrol the inanimate objects of our environment…”(2) Furthermore, the rationality present in human is an undeniable prerequisite for moral judgment: “No one can deny, without falling into performative contradictions, that the common rationality as displayed by the ability to engage in propositional exchange constitutes a necessary condition for ethical problems because this denial would itself have to be presented in the form of a proposition.”(3) Thus, while men deal with animals by force and incentive, men can interact with each other as independent, rational agents –rulers of their domain.(4) By “rulers,” Locke means that all men are equal in authority in their natural state – no man or group of men has any more authority than any other. No man has any more rights than another and no man (or any number of men) has the right to enslave another. To define the proper relationship between men in society, we have the concept of rights.

Rights are “moral principles which define and protect a man’s freedom of action, but impose no obligation on other men.”(5) They are also called “natural rights” because they come from our nature as human beings (that is, our nature as rational agents) not from any other men or group of men (such as a government.) The most fundamental right is the right to one’s own life. This can also be understood as the property right to your own body. A crucial idea to understand at this point is just what “property” and “ownership” is. To own something means to be able to dispose of it as you please. This is ALL that a property right is. Thus, when we say that men have a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” we really mean that men have a right to own their life, which means that they may do as they please with their own body. Of course, most people own much more than their own body, and according to Locke, this is because when men apply their minds and labor to something that is not previously owned, they make it their own. For example, if you come to a barren field that no one owns and grow crops, those crops and that land becomes yours by virtue of the labor you applied to it. According to Locke, it is as if the land has become an extension of your own body. This is hard to grasp at first, but when you realize that the land and your body now serves the same basic purpose (as tools your mind uses to achieve the values necessary for your survival) the idea makes a lot of sense.

Just because all men are equal in authority in their natural state does not mean that everyone will choose to respect the rights of others. Some men decide to infringe on other’s rights by not recognizing every persons right to life. In effect, by their actions, they claim that all men are not created (or born) equal and some have more rights than others. When men choose to initiate force against others by infringing on the natural rights of other men, they forfeit their own right to life. It is crucial to remember that rights cannot be given or taken away, only infringed upon. When a thief steals something from you, he does not gain a right to your property, but rather forfeits his own right to property. The rights we forfeit by initiating force against others are proportional to the rights we violate. This is why we punish criminals – not for revenge or deterrence, but because they forfeited their own right to life when their chose not to recognize it in others. This does not mean that a petty thief automatically looses his right to life — we punish criminals in proportion to the severity of the crime. (An ingenious scheme for determining punishment is presented by Judge Posner: punish the criminal in proportion of the crime times the inverse of the probability that he will be caught and convicted to make sure that crime literally does not pay.(6)) In the state of nature, when someone commits a murder and forfeits his right to life, any man can justly and properly kill him. In our society, this power is reserved to the state, but the principle remains the same.

Of course, few men live as hermits or in a state of nature today. Today, we must trade with other men in order to make our living. Most people do this by exchanging a part of their property (their body & labor) for a part of another person’s property (their money.) This is what we normally call a job. In effect, you are temporally giving certain uses of your body to another person’s control in exchange for property that person created by applying his body to some value-creating actions. In a modern society the pattern of who-owns who and who creates a value for whom becomes very complicated very quickly. It is likely that disagreements will develop between some parties even when both have the best intentions in mind. It is also likely that these parties are not going to be able to be perfectly rational judges of their own case, and this is where government comes in. The sole function of government is to protect property rights – our right to our own life and the product of that life. Governments can do this by (a) defining property rights by objectively predefined laws (b) enforcing laws and punishing criminals when those rights are violated and (c) protecting us from foreign invaders. This is done by (a) legislatures (b) police and courts (c) the military. This is all government can do without infringing on the property rights of one person of another. Programs like welfare, social security, Medicare, etc in effect violate the property rights of the taxpayers by forcibly transferring property from one group of individuals (taxpayers) to another (welfare recipients). That tax-payers have a say in the process and may receive some of the benefits themselves does not change the nature of the argument — if two muggers and their victim vote on whether to take his valet or not, the theft is not justified even if the thieves offer a few pennies back on each dollar stolen. Welfare may perhaps be a valid function of private charities, but they are not valid functions of government.

The sole area government is justified in dealing with is force – a monopoly on the use of force in order to prevent men from initiating force against each other, and punish those who do. What some people call “civil liberties” – the right to vote, protest, equal treatment under that law, are either extensions of our right to life, or the practical necessities in preventing government from overstepping its bounds. Hence, “the right to vote” is not a “right” but a necessary check on the power of government. Voting is not a magical claim of legitimacy to use force on others (as happens in a democracy) and it does not give the majority a right to enforce its will on a minority, whether it participates in the vote or not. The purpose of voting is not to determine what is just, but to make sure that the law adheres to a “higher” natural law – the law of right and wrong. Without this recognition, government is just another tool by which looters can mooch from the producers of a society – a condition known as Statism and common to socialism, communism, and the mixed economy.

The claim that men owe the produce of their labor to society comes from another popular fallacy — the claim that men have a moral responsibility to their community because of an implicit “social contact.” Contracts however, are by definition voluntary agreements entered into by mature, rational people, not born, or locked into during childhood – and especially not locked into by pieces of paper signed several hundred years ago. Being born intro a contract with pre-defined obligations and debts is slavery, pure and simple. It is not total slavery, but to some degree, it is slavery nonetheless. This means that mandatory public education, the draft, and even taxes are all forms of involuntary servitude. Just obligations come from voluntary contracts, not ancient, hereditary, un-chosen contracts. This is not a negation of the fact that I have benefited from the courts, schools, military, etc, but a claim that because none of those obligations were voluntarily chosen, they do not automatically represent any legal or moral debts on my part.

The justification for why men are not born as slaves to their brothers is closely based to the practical requirements of man’s life. One of the primary virtues necessary for any individual to lead a happy and fulfilling life is self-reliance. Self-reliance is the idea that each person should life by his or her own labor rather than a moocher or a sacrificial animal to the needy. The only way for this to happen is for men to act as traders, exchanging the products of their mind and labor on a voluntary basis. This fact comes from the basic nature of man –as described in the beginning of this essay. The only social system capable of allowing this kind of voluntary interaction is capitalism. Capitalism is a social system based on the principle of justice and individual rights, which recognizes the basic nature of man as a rational, productive being. (Private ownership of production and the means of distribution are merely characteristics, not the essentials of capitalism.) Such a view of man is clearly not compatible with vague altruistic obligations to “the community.” In fact, there is no way that we can benefit “the community” – just as there is no collective mind to produce wealth, there is no collective stomach and no collective bank account (yet) to consume it, so in fact, we can only benefit other individuals by our labor. When political power defines who those individuals are, the result is always tyranny by small, politically nimble, yet thoroughly inept and corrupt elite – the inevitable outcome of a mixed economy and all other forms of Statism.

None of this is to say that I am categorically opposed to private charity. I don’t think it’s any great virtue, but a respect for human life (rather than altruistically-motivated guilt) is a corollary of a optimistic and productive view of man and a proper view of value. A man who values his own life and respects individual rights is much less likely to let a child starve than someone who worships the Society or the State, without regard to the sanctity of individual human life. However, acts of charity are only virtues if they are voluntary. They must not wasted by incompetent bureaucrats and lazy bums, but individually chosen to benefit people that one personally cares about.


1. John Locke. Second Treatise of Civil Government. 1690.

2. Hans-Hermann Hoppe. Democracy: The God That Failed p201-202 Transaction, 2001.

3. Hans-Hermann Hoppe. The Economics and Ethics of Private Property. p205. Kluwer, 1993.

4. Locke, Ch2, p14.

5. Ayn Rand, Man’s Rights, in Capitalism:The Unknown Ideal. 1966.

6. Richard A. Posner. Economic Analysis of Law. Aspen, 1997.

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