Rights, Privileges, and Property


Good fences make good neighbors
If you've seen a debate between people with different political beliefs that talk past each other such that the exchange of ideas goes nowhere you have to wonder, why does this happen?  Do not both people want the same thing?  Isn't a common trait of man that we all want peace and prosperity in our lives, a higher standard of living, and to pass on a better world for our children?  How then do we explain that two good-hearted people can almost come to blows over a heated political discussion?  While the reason might be attributed to a difference of opinion in economics, religion, or ethical first principles, a strong cause is the lack of common definitions in terminology.

This problem is especially prevalent when it comes to the idea of rights.  Besides the hardened criminal, who would want to trample on another man's rights?  But in order to avoid violating the rights of another, we must first come to a common understanding of what rights are.  We have a system of government ostensibly purposed with protecting the rights of the individual, yet over time the word has become so muddled and used so loosely that any action or inaction could be construed to violate or deny someone's rights, and our court system overflowing with frivolous lawsuits certainly attests to this.

Taking examples from the United States Bill of Rights, FDR's Second Bill of Rights, the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and from the front pages of today's newspapers, we see that there has been a clear change as to what a right meant at the time of the country's founding and what it means today:

All three refer to rights, but one of these things is not like the others.

Individual rights, group rights, collective bargaining rights, the right to a living wage, civil rights, the right of association, the right to refuse service to anyone, the right to own property alone as well as in association with others, the right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation, the right to adequate medical care, patient rights, the right to life, the right to liberty, the right to the pursuit of happiness, states rights, the divine right of kings, Miranda rights, the right to remain silent, the right to free speech, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation, women's rights, reproductive rights, the right to marry and found a family, disability rights, the right to social security, the right to rest and leisure, the right of every family to a decent home, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to security, the right of self-defense, the right to bear arms, the right to refuse to kill, the right to welfare, the right to a good education, the right to due process of law, the right to not be held in slavery or servitude, consumer rights, the right to travel, the right of the press, the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment, and the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

How can we reconcile these different examples of rights and come to a common, universally applicable definition when close inspection confirms that many of these are incompatible with one another?

Does the right to associate not imply the right to not associate?  How can a restaurant owner hang a sign that says "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone" if that violates the civil rights of another?  Is a man's home his castle, but his business is subject to any regulation the government decides to pass?  Does the African-American or Jewish store owner have the right to refuse service to the skin-head KKK member, and if not, then can someone, presumably a government agent, force the minority store owner to serve the racist customer?  What if it's the other way around?

How can one have a right to specific items like adequate medical care, a good education, a decent home, a remunerative job, or a living wage when the doctor, teacher, construction worker, or business owner has a right to contract, the right to own property, and the right not to be held in servitude?  If I have a right to certain goods, who is to provide them, and how can I force them to give them to me without violating their rights?  Furthermore, who is the one to determine what a "livable wage", a "decent home" or "adequate healthcare" entails?  If I see two people engaged in a voluntary mutually-beneficial contract, and I don’t believe that one side of the deal is adequate, can I use force to stop their arrangement without violating their rights?  If I don't have the power to do that, how can anyone else obtain that power?

Definitions, Corollaries and Examples

These questions are meant to set the stage for the most important concept I've learned in my life: the relationship between rights, privileges, and property.  Once you master this lesson, all the social problems that seem so complicated are suddenly deconstructed to the root issue, that of property.  Since I learned this lesson from Michael Badnarik, I think it is appropriate that he introduce you to this concept as well.  I recommend watching his entire Constitution Class, and if you're lucky enough taking it in person.  This is 10 minutes of the 2004 Libertarian Party Presidential Candidate at his finest: on Rights vs Privileges.

So what did we learn from Badnarik's 10 minute lesson?  Here are the definitions and corollaries, shamelessly taken from his book, Good to be King: The Foundation of our Constitutional Freedom.

Right: A right implies the powers of free action; something you have the sovereign authority to do, because there is no higher authority to get permission from; you don't have to ask; you get to make the final decision.  This is the exact opposite of a …

Privilege: A particular and peculiar benefit or advantage enjoyed by a person, company, or class, beyond the common advantages of other citizens; a temporary authority granted to you by someone of a higher authority; a privilege can be revoked at any time for any reason.

The three corollaries of these definitions:
  • All rights are derived from property;
  • Every right implies a responsibility; and
  • The only limitation on your rights is the equal rights of others.

So accepting these definitions for the sake of argument, let's apply them to the examples and controversial questions posed above and see what the results are.

Dr. Ron Paul has been chastised many times over his objection to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  He has always maintained that the act was good with respect to dismantling the racist segregation laws that the government created in the first place, but he opposes the act in its capacity to violate the property rights of business owners.  On June 4th, 2004, when Congress celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, Ron Paul objected and made this point:
"The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the federal government unprecedented power over the hiring, employee relations, and customer service practices of every business in the country. The result was a massive violation of the rights of private property and contract, which are the bedrocks of free society. The federal government has no legitimate authority to infringe on the rights of private property owners to use their property as they please and to form (or not form) contracts with terms mutually agreeable to all parties. The rights of all private property owners, even those whose actions decent people find abhorrent, must be respected if we are to maintain a free society. "
While Dr. Paul has been labeled as a racist, a kook, and an idiot for this statement and others expressing his opposition to the portion of the Civil Rights Act impacting private business, taking his objection within the context of the definitions and corollaries of rights above, those ad-hominem attacks lose their credibility.  These are not the words of a closet racist yearning for the good old days of white only restaurants.  Instead, his principled stance in defense of property rights is in line with the expression, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it".

Similarly, Dr. Rand Paul was viciously attacked along the same lines for his philosophical point on the implications of a right to healthcare.  After stating that a right to healthcare implies the threat of force to conscript someone to supply it, Senator Bernie Sanders pulled a "gotcha" move on Senator Rand Paul and asked the witness Dr. Krauss "do you consider yourself a slave"  and if she is worried that the "police department in the middle of the night is going to break down your door and force you to treat a patient."  Senator Rand Paul was further criticized for making this point in the media when articles showed the clear differences in the standard of living of a slave in 19th century America to a doctor today.  These attacks miss the point.  Obviously, the life of a doctor in a western country with socialized healthcare cannot compare his day-to-day life to that of an agricultural slave.  But that was not the basis of comparison.  Paul said what he did to illustrate the definition of a right and the consequences of granting a positive right that would impose a duty to fulfill an obligation on another.  This is not mere rhetoric, because how we define rights determine how we see the world and how we judge the moral or immoral character of the actions of others.

The Definition of a Right Guides Moral Judgment

Let's take two examples from recent headlines to illustrate how our definition of a right would influence our moral judgment.  In the first case, hundreds of union Longshoremen exercised their right to a remunerative job by invading the Port of Longview, destroying railroad cars and grain, and holding security guards hostage.  Depending on your definition of a right you could approve of these tactics and view the criminals as the employer who denied the longshoremen their right to a decent wage and the non-union "scab" workers who conspired in this crime by accepting the job the union members rejected.

In another story we have 64 year old Martin Kessman fighting for his civil rights by suing fast-food chain White Castle because their booths were uncomfortable and not sufficiently designed for fat people.  If the government can indeed grant a right peculiar to one person or group beyond the common advantages of others by passing legislation, and if the Americans with Disabilities Act covers those with the disease of obesity, then this hero is fighting for his consumer rights against a criminal organization denying his seat at the table.

Unfortunately for civil discourse, many people would accept the sarcastic characterization of these stories because they have a fundamental difference or lack of opinion as to what a right means.  But this is not a mere "you say tomato, I say tomahto" or "live and let live" sort of dispute, these are serious accusations that result in criminal penalties!  In one case, we have invasion and destruction of property combined with hostage taking and terroristic threats.  But these criminals are shielded from the law while the employer and the voluntary workers are left defenseless against union violence.  If I don't have the right to destroy, loot, and kidnap my employer with immunity if I don't get the raise I want, how did these Longshoremen get that power?  Next, we have a group of people organized to provide hamburgers to the public on a strictly voluntary basis and a man using the courts to threaten legal force of law to shut them down and confiscate their property unless they offer hamburgers under conditions that please this busybody.  In a free society the owners of White Castle would have the right and freedom of action to offer hamburgers under any condition they wish, and they would be rewarded with profits if their decisions please the consumers while losses and bankruptcy would follow bad ones.

This isn't to say that living in a free society where property rights are respected  would cure all social ills.  Racism, sexism, and other discriminatory applications of the right of association would still exist just as they do today.  However, at least the perpetrators would be held accountable by the consuming public that would recognize and disapprove of these behaviors, and innocent people wouldn't be forcefully imposed with duties and obligations just because they are offering a good, service, or job to another under conditions that someone else doesn't approve.  Regardless, these utilitarian arguments are of secondary consideration to a libertarian of my stripe.  Instead, the genesis and morality of these definitions and applications of rights, privileges, and property come from the timeless libertarian principles of self-ownership, homesteading, and natural law.

The Libertarian Tradition

In this day it is not necessary to argue against the divine right of kings as the self-ownership axiom is generally accepted as self-evident.  We are all made of flesh and blood, and no one recognizes the authority of someone that claims to come from heaven with a mandate to rule over the sinners.  However, not long ago the idea that men were born into nature free and equal was a revolutionary idea, and it was this philosophy that lead to the American experiment of a sovereign people with unalienable rights who empower a limited government that is "bound by the chains of the Constitution".  Frank Chodorov noted the wide contrast this experiment made with the conventional wisdom of the time in his essay Return Revolution.  Acknowledging the radical implications of the metaphysical principles that all men are created equal and are endowed with inalienable rights, he wrote,
"This was a brand-new base for government.  In all political science hitherto known it had been an axiom that rights were privileges handed down to subjects by the sovereign power; hence there was nothing positive about them.  A new king or a new parliament could abrogate existing rights or extend them to other groups or establish new favorites.  The Americans, however, insisted that in the nature of things all rights inhere in the individual, by virtue of his existence, and that he instituted government for the sole purpose of preventing one citizen from violating the rights of another.  Sovereign power, they said, resides in the individual; the government is only the agency of his will."
Far from being uncontroversial, the principle of self-ownership turned the prevailing wisdom on its head and threatened the legitimacy of Kings with divine rights to rule and Thomas Hobbes' theories of absolutist governments.  An idea such as this did not materialize in a vacuum, rather the Jeffersonian branch of the founding fathers were influenced by English philosopher John Locke.  He wrote against both Kings and Leviathans in his Second Treatise of Government and tied together the ideas of natural law, self-ownership, and property rights in material objects through homesteading to promote a philosophy of government for the common good by the consent of the people.  Locke wrote,
"…every man has a property in his own person.  This nobody has any right to but himself.  The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.  Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined it to something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.  It being by him removed from the common state nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men.  For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what is once joined to.…
Thus the grass my horse has bit, the turfs my servant has cut, and the ore I have dug in any place where I have a right to them in common with others, became my property without the assignation or consent of anybody.  The labour that was mine removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them."
The italicized portion of that quote highlights the most radical part of his philosophy.  Not only do men, by their nature, have unalienable rights over their body and mind, but rights over material property such as land and goods are also natural when obtained through homesteading or voluntary trade.  This is an important distinction, because while it is easy to recognize a rights violation when one man assaults another, it is difficult if not impossible to see it in material goods if one is not equipped with a theory of how those property rights originate in the first place.  Murray Rothbard wrote of this challenge in his libertarian treatise For a New Liberty,
"The libertarian … adopt[s] as his primary axiom the universal right of self-ownership, a right held by everyone by virtue of being a human being.

A more difficult task is to settle on a theory of property in nonhuman objects, in the things of this earth.

If, for example, we see X seizing a watch in the possession of Y we cannot automatically assume that X is aggressing against Y's right of property in the watch; for may not X have been the original, "true" owner of the watch who can therefore be said to be repossessing his own legitimate property?  In order to decide, we need a theory of justice in property, a theory that will tells us whether X or Y or indeed someone else is the legitimate owner."
It is the libertarian principles of natural law, self-ownership, and homesteading that provides this needed theory of justice that is universally applicable and results in common-sense moral judgment.  Without this, we would be in the world that Chodorov wrote of that preceded the American revolution, where no rights exist to the individual, only privileges granted by the sovereign power that can be revoked at any time.  Unfortunately, a sober reflection of today's western society admits that the idea of natural rights is going out of fashion, and the pendulum swings back to a time when rights are whatever the government decides to grant its subjects.  While the outward characteristic of the sovereign has changed from a divine King to the mob rule of democracy, the practical result is the same for the common man.


We started with the social problems of today, and proposed that a consistent application and acceptance of the definitions and corollaries of rights, privileges, and property that I first learned from Michael Badnarik could offer a solution.  I attempted to contrast the common-sense answers to our social problems deduced from natural rights with the absurdities and inner contradictions that appear when one accepts the proposition that a right is whatever the sovereign authority legislates it to be.  Recognizing that Badnarik was not the progenitor of this philosophy, I traced its lineage from John Locke to Murray Rothbard, and on the way illustrated how the founding of America was influenced by these ideas when self-ownership and natural rights were commonly accepted by the people.

At the risk of evoking Godwin's law, I will end with a thought experiment that I have asked myself from time to time as I have researched and studied these ideas.  It is a spin-off of the question that Michael Badnarik poses to his Constitution Class in the video below.  Rather than putting yourself in the position of a Jew in Nazi Germany and asking how badly would your rights have to be violated before you would forcibly resist, my thought experiment puts you in the seat of a patriotic, God-fearing German citizen.  Based on your conception of rights, privileges, property, and the relationship between men and their country, what would you have done when the sovereign, lawful, duly elected authority violated the natural rights of your neighbor?  Even if you did not accept the propaganda that the Jews and other social undesirables were the cause of the German economic crisis, how far would your inner conviction hold against the weight of popular opinion, and the desire to be patriotic and comply with the law of the land?  Would you take a job as a concentration camp guard because "the law is the law"?  Would you take a more noble profession, but rat out your gypsy neighbor in hiding because it would be unlawful not to do so?  Or would you stand on your inner convictions, regardless of the consequences, and realize that the natural rights of the minority were being violated by an immoral and unlawful government, doing everything in your power to hide and safe-keep as many innocent lives as you could?  While we will not face the same great moral question that was posed to the German of 1938, I believe we will face a question of equal magnitude in our lives, and an acceptance of natural rights as laid forth above would make one more likely than not to answer that question correctly.

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