What Rights Means To Me

July 29th, 2010   Submitted by Seth King

I’ve had some ideas percolating in my head for a few months now. I am re-evaluating the entire idea of what rights are. For a very long time rights were something I viewed as God-given. One had a right to speech, to bear arms, to privacy, and to a myriad others endowed to us by our creator. Then I read some Murray Rothbard and learned that either he, or Mises, had efficiently summed it up as one specific right; the right to property. All of the other rights we can dream up come down to property rights.

The right to life is merely self-ownership. Weapons, narcotics and food, among other things, are all material goods that are owned, and if accumulated in a voluntary manner, should all be permissible in a free society. A classic example is that the right to speech only goes as far as where one is speaking. If a person is yelling “fire” in a crowded theater then he is violating the theater owner’s rules, and thus, does not have a right to speech. If that same person is, however, printing an article on his own paper, with his own ink, or likewise has the consent of the paper and ink owner, then there should be no one to stop him. The list of examples could go on but if one is interested in learning more I would refer them to Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty.

The harsh reality though, is that for everything the libertarian says should happen quite often does not happen. I cannot help remembering an instance a few years ago I had while reading Aesop’s Fables I discovered the original saying of an oft misspoken phrase is “might makes right” as opposed to what I had always thought was “right makes might.”

Being a libertarian I was well versed in the whole concept of positive and negative rights. But it wasn’t until I converted to anarchism that I started to suspect that there really is no such things as rights, after all. There is no right to property, therefore, there is also no right to life or liberty. The only right an individual has is his free will. If I do not have one hundred percent control over it, then it is not a right. Essentially, this amounts to what one thinks and what one’s physical body can do. Those are the only inalienable rights. By definition, inalienable means that something cannot be taken away. But since property and life can be taken away with or without one’s consent, then it is not an inalienable right. Free will is the only thing God gave us that cannot be taken away by man. So, the whole concept of rights to me is moot. Liberty, on the other hand, is a different story. Liberty encompasses all that one normally understands as rights. My goal as an anarchist is not to maximize individual rights, but instead individual liberty. And there is a difference.

I believe we are living in anarchy right now. Natural Law, Austrian Economics, and anarchy are operating one hundred percent of the time, all day, every day. Anarchy is not about getting rid of government and then having anarchy. For me, getting rid of the state is the same as increasing individual liberty and thus creating a society that is more in harmony with Natural Law, anarchy, and Austrian Economics. Society at large is not guilty of disobeying the laws of nature, but merely ignoring them. For too long libertarians have been waiting for the rest of the individuals and institutions on earth to respect their rights. This is not how nature works. Individuals are not guaranteed rights that do not exist. Liberty must simply be stronger than that of tyranny. As anarchists we will never convert the world by playing by their rules, instead we must find and live by our own.

The state exists in people’s minds. It can exist in the minds of one billion people or one person. The state is essentially the initiation of force. It is anti-justice. It can and will happen for the rest of eternity. We are never going to stop it. We can, however, end the state as a global institution. That will not happen until enough individuals recognize the state for what it really is… institutionalized violence. The state cannot be reformed just like the initiation of violence cannot be reformed. It must be disobeyed.

I would love to read what others think about the idea of rights. And I would specifically like to know where each person is coming from in their definition, such as a viewpoint of minarchy, anarchy, statism, or other.

15 Responses to “What Rights Means To Me”

  1. DaveGNo Gravatar says:

    You are correct, inalienable does indicate that something cannot be either taken away by force, or given up voluntarily. Your position that because property CAN be taken away or given up voluntarily therefore the right to private property must not exist confuses the target of the right with the right itself. Your possession of a right and your ability to freely exercise that right are two different things.

    To illustrate, taxation is an ongoing and continued theft. Theft is, of course, an infringement upon an individual’s right to private property. Such an infringement does not remove the individual’s fundamental right – because if the infringement were to cease (i.e. the abolishment of the law requiring the payment of income tax), the individual would retain possession of their property – and thus be able to freely exercise their right of private property ownership.

    Rothbard is correct that the fundamental right is the right to private property and that all other rights are based upon it. Just because it can be not respected and infringed upon does not disprove its existence but very much forms the basis of the proof of its existence.

    (As a side note, Ethics of Liberty is the second most influential and world view altering book I have read in my life.)

  2. Seth:
    “As anarchists we will never convert the world by playing by their rules, instead we must find and live by our own.”


    In Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” I was introduced to the idea that essentially everything is voluntary. Others can threaten or even use coercive force against us, but we are always free to choose how we respond.

    A slave is one who waits for someone to come and free him.
    -Ezra Pound

    Freedom is a state of mind that each of us must discover for ourselves. In so doing, we will find that there is nothing that anyone in authority can do to make our world more peaceful, orderly, or free.
    -Butler Shaffer

    DaveG … Ethics of Liberty is the second most influential world view altering book for me also. What’s the most influential for you? For me, it has to be Boundaries of Order. Simply brilliant.

  3. Whoopdy DoNo Gravatar says:

    I’m coming into this as a libertarian. I’d be an anarchist, but I haven’t figured out any way it will ever work. It seems to me anarchy will always evolve (devolve?) into some form of government. But that’s for another post.

    My position on rights is, I believe most of the basic ones (property, liberty, etc.) are natural rights.

    I do not, however, think any of them are inalienable.

    Property and liberty can always be taken away. And anybody who’s read 1984 knows that even our free will can be destroyed. Rebels and revolutionaries are “broken” in prison every day. It’s the state’s final trump card.

    If the state exists only in our minds, then so does our notion of rights. As soon as we’re forced or coerced into giving up one right, we’re being governed. We have rights only to the extent we can defend them.

    Now that is my definition of anarchy.

  4. DaveGNo Gravatar says:

    David – as a Christian, the most influential book I’ve ever read is the Bible. The more I study to increase my faith and also to further develop my personal political and economic philosophy, I find that libertarianism is the only political philosophy that does not require me to check some parts of my religious beliefs at the door.

    Whoopdy Do – I stand by my position above, just because the free exercise of the natural rights can be infringed (partially or entirely), does not take the right away. All that has been removed is the ability to exercise the right. Remove the limiting factor (whatever it may be), and the right remains and free exercise can be resumed.

    Great discussion guys!

    • Whoopdy DoNo Gravatar says:

      Hmm. I see your point. I think we’re splitting hairs. I’m sort of doing this on the fly and may not have thought it through all the way, but this is what I came here for — to clear my own muddled thinking.

      I’m less interested in logic (in which I think you’re correct) than in real-world applications (in which I think I’m correct).

      If an oppressor takes away my ability to exercise a right, then for practical purposes I don’t have that right, unless I manage by struggle or negotiation to get it back. You can say it still exists (if it didn’t, what would I be fighting/negotiating for?), but if I don’t have it doesn’t do me much good.

      Short version: It might be a natural right, but it’s not an inalienable right.

      I think the most fundamental right is not to property, but to free will. Let’s extend my reasoning to that. Say, in some horrible 1984-ish manner (perhaps via repeated exposure to American Idol), my oppressor manages to brainwash me so that I have no free will anymore.

      Without free will, I have no ability to desire free will, or even imagine it exists. In the universe as I then see it, do I still have a right to it? It’s certainly no longer an inalienable right. Is it even a natural right?

      I believe totalitarian regimes (and the producers of Al) would say no. That is the state of affairs to which all governments aspire.

      • DaveGNo Gravatar says:

        WD – some very good points. I’ll admit I’ve never considered free will in this context. Though I’m suspect that we have a chicken vs. egg situation here: Can I have the right of private property ownership (and thus ownership of myself) without free will? Alternately, can I have free will without the fundamental ownership of myself and therefore the ability to express my free will? Perhaps free will and the right to private property ownership are two sides of the exact same coin, and you cannot have one without the other.

        You are correct that my position does address things from the logical point of view, but I see that it is extremely important to the practical / real-world applications. I disagree that it’s a matter of splitting hairs. I believe this understanding that the fundamental natural right of private property ownership is inalienable vital to all other arguments in support of personal liberty.

        If said right is alienable, and thus all other rights which flow from it, then under what authority can it be taken away? If alienable, then it cannot be “stolen”, as theft by definition implies the right of ownership. It must be taken away through some authority. Most commonly this would be through the threat or application of force or violence. Thus, violence against another, or threat thereof, is all that is necessary to gain final authority over them. There is then no foundation from which we can make any argument for personal liberty.

        On the other hand, understanding that it is inalienable and that it is the free exercise of that right that it being limited or denied solidly provides that foundation. For even if completely denied, we still have the “right” to rise up and throw off such oppression in order to regain the ability to exercise that right.

        To answer your final questions, I’ll share with you what my high school American Government teacher taught us when discussing fundamental rights: “My right to swing my fist stops at the very end of your nose.” My inalienable natural rights are mutually exclusive to yours, and to everyone elses. There is no risk in justly exercising my natural rights that I might infringe upon yours.

        I am here for very similar reasons as yourself. One cannot refine their beliefs and understanding sitting alone in a room. One MUST come forth, interact with others. I have found that I learn the most about what I truly do believe and understand when having to defend my position. 🙂

  5. Whoopdy DoNo Gravatar says:

    Furthermore, do we have any “natural” rights if those rights infringe on or come at the expense of the same rights for others?

    Do I have a right to liberty, property or free will if having them means somebody else can’t?

  6. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    DaveG- Would you consider yourself a Christian Anarchist? If so, there is a forum topic where I and another person discuss Christian Anarchism and I would love to read your input in the matter.

    Everyone- Could it be that the English language leaves the word “right” wanting? “Right” is such a loaded term that perhaps it makes things confusing for philosophical purposes.

    Often times we think of rights as being guaranteed. And the idea of saying that we have the right to bear arms, even though we really don’t just seems odd to me. “Rights” when thinking in terms of justice is different. One has the right to do certain things, simply because exercising those rights is not wrong, or not anti-justice. Then morality comes in to play as well. It would be wrong to do such and such, hence, it is not a right. Very confusing indeed.

    • Whoopdy DoNo Gravatar says:

      Excellent bit about free will as fundamental ownership of self! I never thought of it that way. Self-identity as the ultimate property.

      I believe the above even clarifies your problems with interpretation of the word “right.”

      You can extend DaveG’s reasoning to think of rights as property. In that sense some are inherent, therefore inalienable. Anybody who steals your property is clearly in the wrong, and your property doesn’t become non-existent, or even not still properly yours. It’s just out of your control until you manage to get it back.

      This all seems like it’s pretty basic and no doubt has all been covered already by previous anarchic thinkers, but it’s relatively fresh to me.

      I must say that, in view of our discussion of “logical” rights vs. “real world” rights, our right to bear arms, though perhaps not “natural,” is the one that ensures we keep all the others.

      • DaveGNo Gravatar says:

        WD – Thanks to you too. Until this discussion, I had never really considered how free will really fits into things. I guess I had taken it for granted in my thought process. Like I said – it isn’t until I’m in a discussion with someone that my understandings are refined!

        Re: right to bear arms. I’ve come to classify this (and similar rights) as “derived rights” in that they are directly derived from the fundamental right of private ownership of property. The basic ownership of weapons is obviously covered under the natural right of private ownership of property. Of course, the concept of bearing arms includes much more than simply possessing weapons – it includes the use of them in defense of person and / or property. That is where I see the “derived right” flowing from.

        If I have an inalienable right to something, then I must also have the implied right to defend against the infringement upon that right. For example, I have the natural right to life, therefore I have the implied natural right to defend against anyone who would attempt to infringe upon or deny me free exercise of that right (ie. kill me). Combined with my natural right to private property ownership – I therefore can justly use any property I have (i.e. pistol, rifle, F-14 Tomcat) in the defense of the free exercise of my right.

  7. Rights are not wrongs, I like it 🙂 Reminds me of Hoppe’s market “goods” vs state “bads” discussion.

    Same with the word “law.” Scientific laws cannot be violated (as they are defined) but laws of conduct are of a different nature. Of course we say that natural law can’t be violated in perpetuity (as we see wealth destruction and de-civilization as a result) … but it can be violated for a certain period of time. In my view, this is reflected in the rise of states (violation of natural law) and then their collapse (natural law wins).

    Biblically, Deut 6:18a discusses harmony in life coming from congruence with natural law (from the standpoint that God created nature, and thus the laws of God are found in nature):
    “Do what is right and good in the LORD’s sight, so all will go well with you.”

    Words are abstractions of ideas, and not ideas themselves.

  8. DaveGNo Gravatar says:

    Seth – I am a Christian. I have adopted many Rothbardian concepts into my own political world view (hence my prior comment about Ethics of Liberty). So technically I guess that does classify me as a Christian Anarchist, but only to the extent that both terms individually are appropriate. I’ve registered on the forums – PM me there, and I’d enjoy joining that topic.

    To the point that the popular usage of the term “right” does lend a level of confusion to the discussion. In my comments above, for example, I have used the term do refer to a specific set of rights – namely those inalienable natural rights with which we are all endowed. I admittedly assumed that others here were using the same reference – though they could have been referring to legal rights – which are by definition alienable. Which leads to an interesting side discussion, should natural rights and legal rights all be classified as “rights”?

    Your point on the morality of exercising a right is interesting. My question is – under what circumstances would justly exercising a right be “wrong”? What makes it wrong? If it is because it infringes upon someone else’s rights (positive or negative rights) then I would argue that you are NOT justly exercising a right.

    However, if you are thinking more along the lines of societal norms or religion dictating the inherent acceptability, that’s a completely different situation, especially if you are thinking about the exercise of a natural right. For example, it is a societal norm that consuming alcoholic beverages before the age of 21 is “wrong”. That does not then imply that until the age of 21, a person does not have the right of self ownership, and the derived power to decide what they will or will not consume. The individual is simply free to abide by the societal norm or not, and to be responsible for the consequences of their decision – good or bad.

    I better be careful here, I think I’ve written more in comments than the original post. I don’t want to wear out my welcome in my first week. 😉

  9. justinoNo Gravatar says:

    My own thoughts are that rights are moral actions necessary for the preservation and fulfillment of human life. Since human life is the attribute of the individual, each life is an end in itself and should not be sacrificed for others, making rights inalienable.

    This arise from the fact that, if a person chooses to life, his life is his ultimate source of moral value because he cannot, as a volitional being, achieve values in the long run unless he is alive.

  10. AuNeroNo Gravatar says:

    Seth said: “We can, however, end the state as a global institution. That will not happen until enough individuals recognize the state for what it really is… institutionalized violence.”

    Here is a recent study that speaks to this:

    Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will
    always be adopted by the majority of the society.