Thursday, January 7, 2010

Where Do Individual Rights Come From?

Mark Levin's new "conservative manifesto," Liberty and Tyranny, has become a big best-seller as Americans have sought intellectual ammunition to oppose the Administration's attempt, in President Obama's own words, to "transform America."

Exactly what he wished to change, Mr. Obama never made perfectly clear in his many campaign speeches.  And while some Americans may still be a little confused about what this President intends to do, a look at the latest poll of likely voters suggests a majority of Americans have nonetheless concluded that the Obama Administration poses an existential threat to their right to make their own judgment about what doctor they wish to see, what sort of health care they want, how they wish to run their lives.

There is a reason why Tea Party protesters held up signs reading, "Leave Us Alone."

Americans understand, in short, that President Obama believes government should control the people, even if doing so means forcing upon them laws they oppose by large margins.  The President should be given credit of a sort for his moral, if not his rhetorical, consistency.

photoFor implicit in Mr. Obama's political ideology is a theory of ethics widely applauded by today's intellectual, academic, and media elites, namely, the belief that rights are a gift of society.  Thus Obama's political system subordinates an individual's "right" only to that freedom of action "society" decides he should exercise.

As there is no such entity as "society," since society is only a number of individual people, this system means, in practice, whichever political gang controls the executive and legislative powers decides what "rights" Americans get to exercise.

"Rights" are a moral concept--the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual's actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others.  The concept of individual rights is the means of subordinating society to moral law.

Since every political system is based on some code of ethics, the key to understanding the scope and nature of such a system lay in the degree to which individual rights are recognized and protected.

Clearly, any system that subordinates the individual to some higher authority, either mystical or social, places that higher authority outside the moral law.  "The Divine Right of Kings" summarizes the political theory of the first; "The Voice of the People is the Voice of God" summarizes the second.  The common characteristic of either code of ethics is the fact that society stands above the moral law, as an omnipotent, sovereign, arbitrary power exercised without restraint and according to the whims of whoever becomes the ruler.

Liberty and TyrannyWhen the "conservative" Mr. Levin offers, in opposition to the social theory of ethics, one founded on mysticism, he does not seem to be aware that his theory does not support the concept of inalienable individual rights, but undermines them at the most fundamental level.

So finally we come to the opening question, "Where do individual rights come from?"

The source of rights is man's nature.

While the Declaration of Independence states that men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," whether one believes that man is the product of a Creator or of nature, the issue of man's origin does not change the fact that he is a being of a specific kind--a rational being--and that he cannot function successfully under coercion.  Individual rights are the necessary condition of his particular mode of survival.

The Declaration laid down the principle that "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men."  This principle provides the only valid justification for government and defines its only valid purpose:  to protect man's rights by protecting him from physical violence.

The Founding Fathers thus changed the role of government from ruler to servant.

Government protects people from criminals; the Constitution protects people from government.  For about a hundred and fifty years the United States of America came close to achieving a civilized society, one in which physical force was banned from human relationships, in which government, acting as a policeman, used force only in retaliation and only against those who initiated its use.

Unfortunately that is no longer the case.  Everywhere we turn Americans today are fearful of their government, and alarmed by its gross incompetence in protecting them from enemies, foreign and domestic.

Americans fear that the Obama Administration seeks to become their ruler, rather than their servant.

And they have cause to be alarmed.  Very alarmed.

While the rise of the Tea Party movement suggests that radical change may lay in the near future, Americans will be able to reconstitute their government only if they work together. 

That means, above, all, they must get their ideological house in order, understand the principles of limited government, and act boldly and wisely.

Tom Anderson
January 2010

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