What Is a “Right”?

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Have you ever thought about what a “right” actually is?

No, really…have you ever thought about this?

No? Maybe you should! I challenge you to do something right now.

Go, pick up all your rights and put them in a pile next to you.

What? Can’t do that? Why not?!

Rights are SO real, they have to be tangible…right? (no pun intended…well, maybe it was a little intended 😉 ). I ask my students this question at the beginning of class. I ask them to hand me their rights. Show them to me. Of course, none of them can. Why? Because, the hard reality is, there really is no such thing as a “right”.

Now, don’t get upset and stop reading. I’m not saying that the idea of “rights” is wrong or invalid. No, quite the opposite. I’m in favor of rights! But I’m also in favor of being educated and aware that the idea of “rights” was man-made (there’s an entire Biblical component here that I could explore but that’s for another day and another time). We all need to be aware that “rights” are not tangible. Knowing that “rights” aren’t tangible helps prepare us for the tidalwave of new “rights” that is getting ready to crash down on our nation.

Rights and Private Property

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So, before I explain what I mean by a “tidalwave of rights”, you should read my post detailing the theory behind why we need government (and check back for the rest of the series as well!). Why? Because you really need to have a solid foundation in the theory of “rights” in order to understand why the “rights” that are now being thrown around in our nation today are actually dangerous.

Theory grounds “rights”. It makes sure that “rights” are not derived from every desire (usually based on a whim) we want and say we have a “right” to fulfill. Theory says that we have “rights” that are natural, God-given or innate—however, beyond these natural “rights”, we do not have “rights”.

The primary right? Private property. Private property? John Locke defines private property this way:

“Though the Earth, and all inferior Creatures be common to all Men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his” (288).

Basically, private property is something that belongs to you because you worked on or for it. If you wrote a book, that book is yours. If you planted a garden, the fruit of that garden is yours. Make sense? If you made money working, that money is yours.

Government and Private Property

Ok, this is important, so stick with me here. Government’s job, according to Locke (I will give more detail about Locke’s reasoning behind why we need government in another post), is to protect private property. The end goal of government is to protect private property. Get that? In other words, the only reason that government is formed is for the preservation of property. More specifically, the only reason law exists is to protect private property. Hence, Locke argues that the law-making body (Congress) should be directly connected to the people whom they represent, because its Congress’ sole job to protect private property through making law (for more on this, read my post on why Congress is considered the pre-eminent branch in government).

Let’s break this down. Our rights (based on theory) are natural, meaning they have nothing to do with government. They are not derived from government. Government only exists to protect the rights that are already existent. What are those rights? Private property. That’s it! Which means that government’s job is rather slim. Government exists to protect private property, our only natural right.

What Happens When We Move Away From This Theoretical Grounding?

Why is this theoretical understanding of “rights” so important for you? Let’s think about this. If “rights” are not grounded in something—in theory—then a “right” can be anything…anything. And if government’s job is to protect our “rights”, the more “rights” that people demand, the more “government” is required enforce the laws to protect those “rights”.

For instance, we now have many people who believe that healthcare, savings for when they retire (aka: social security), a paid living wage for the poor, internet access, clean air, the ability to purchase products wherever they want to purchase them, education, a job, abortion (are you getting the picture?) are now “rights” that government ought to ensure and protect. And this list is just getting longer and longer…and longer.

Everyone is coming up with a new right, every day. Why? Because a “right” is not a real thing…it is, very literally, a figment of our imagination—albeit a powerful figment. So, if we allow “rights” to simply be whatever we want them to be, with no grounding in anything, “rights” will be anything the irrational and emotional public demands. People could very well say that pedophilia is a “right”…who’s to tell them otherwise if government has no limits about what a “right” is and therefore what their job is?

photo of a man raising a human rights signage

The more “rights” the public demands, the more “government” is required. Ironic, right? We might consider rights a good thing, a thing akin to liberty—-but there can be too much of a good thing. Locke, other liberal philosophers and the American founders were keenly aware of how irrational and emotional the public can be. So, they attempted to ground “rights” in nature or the Bible to keep the power to define “rights” out of people’s hands. That way, the goverment’s job was clearly defined because the “rights” government was supposed to protect, were clearly defined.

Since we’ve moved away from the Constitution and the original use of government (to protect private property), we’ve opened ourselves up to a tidal wave of potential “rights” and with that, a tidal wave of more laws, regulations and government.

Does this make sense? Do you now understand why having a firm foundation about the theory of “rights” is so important as an American citizen?

I love liberty. I love liberty more than “rights”. The idea of “rights” is fine, within reason—-but when “rights” begin to threaten liberty, the “rights” need to be reassessed.

I plan to write more on this, but I hope I’ve given you something to chew on until next time.

The Liberty Belle



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