Inalienable Rights

From Civicwiki
Jump to: navigation, search

Belief in the existence of a set of rights vested in every person is fundamental to the concept of liberty. It is the central premise of the founding of the United States of America. Such rights have been referred to as 'natural', 'God-given', and 'inalienable'. Each of these mean that such rights exist without choice on our part. Inalienable means "incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred" - according to Merriam Webster. They cannot be transferred, withdrawn, or denied. John Locke was an English political theorist who wrote about the origins of political power in the 17th century. His Second Treatise of Government, written in the 1670s, was known and quoted frequently by Americans 100 years later. This article relies heavily on Locke's writing, plagiarizing and quoting it freely. (See, in particular, Chapter 2). We will also draw from founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, sources such as F.A. Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty, Alex deTocqueville's Democracy in America, and other sources as other editors introduce them - this being a rich subject.

America's Declaration of Rights

Written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, America's Declaration of Independence is a compelling document. It is a radical document - but then the founders of the United States were not conservatives - they were radicals in the cause of liberty, which is what it originally mean to be 'liberal'. The Declaration is worth understanding and is the subject of a separate article. We quote here the most famous of its lines. (Jefferson uses "unalienable", others use "inalienable".)

  • Note that Jefferson uses 'Right' in a couple of ways - we have "unalienable Rights" and because of that it is "the Right of the People" to change their government to protect those rights. (The emphases below are ours.)
    • "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government . . ."

Fundamental Rights

According to Locke(need citation): To understand the rights of political power, one must understand the natural state of all men - which is:

  • Personal freedom: That state is one of freedom to order their own affairs and to dispose of their goods, services, and time as they see fit - "within the law of nature, and without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man".
    • The words in quotes tell us that your inalienable rights may not legitimately be restricted by others.
    • This is a broad and sweeping declaration making personal freedom the central concept that legitimate government must take into account. It sounds unlimited, but there are, of course, limitations - and we will get to that.
  • Equality: Where such rights are concerned, all men are alike in their possession and enjoyment of them.
    • "all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another . . . without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty".
      • It is interesting that Locke allows the possibility that God might set one above the rest. This is a point that could be debated. Monarchs often claimed divine right, but Locke would likely deny the divine right of Kings or Queens.
  • Rights are a state of liberty - not license: Being all equal, none may cause harm to another
    • "in his life, health liberty, or possessions . . . and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses, . . ".
    • As we are each bound to preserve ourselves, when our own survival is not at stake, we are also bound to preserve mankind in general. We may not, except in the name of justice due an offender, impair life, or what is used to reserve life, liberty, health, or possessions.
  • Restraint from invading the rights of others: We may be restrained from invading the rights of others or of doing hurt to one another.
    • So. we and others may, by the nature of our fundamental rights, act to "preserve the innocent and restrain offenders".
  • The source of power of one over another: It is the right to restrain offenders that allows a power of one over another.
    • But this is neither absolute nor arbitrary power. Criminals must be dealt with dispassionately and with justice proportional to the transgression
    • An offender transgresses the law of nature - living by rules other than those of reason and common equity, and so becomes dangerous to mankind. Anyone may, therefore, act to restrain the offender.

Liberty and Liberties

F.A. Hayek, in his book The Constitution of Liberty, states in the first chapter that it is concerned with "that condition of men in which coercion of some by others is reduced as much as is possible in society".

  • "A state of liberty or freedom": He also brings in the concept of arbitrariness by talking about "the state in which a man is not subject to coercion by the arbitrary will of another" and calls this personal freedom.
  • Hayek discusses the meaning of 'liberty' and 'freedom', defining his use of the terms first, and then differentiating it from other uses. This is the subject of an article titled Liberty and Liberties. It is an important article since one of the more common methods of extending the meaning of 'rights' is to admit a right to "freedom" (for example) and then to assign additional meanings to the word, not originally admitted, to justify the assertion of new "rights". For example, does a right to freedom include freedom from poverty?