The 'Rights of Man' Didn't Create Rights, and Neither Can You

By Gord Gekko
web posted May 1997

It is also the word that causes me more grief when it comes to explaining my political and economic principles. The word that that is so often misused by people when explaining what they want from me.

The word is "right", perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misused words in the modern English-language.

If one were to assume the role of wag, one could blame the Greeks for actually (well, if one only counts free males) putting the concept to work. Or perhaps one could cast a dim eye towards King John for signing the Magna Carta in 1215 giving English nobles protection from capricious kingly actions (although the real wags would say it was John's military failures in France, his stringent taxation, and his abuse of royal and feudal privileges that provoked his barons to rebellion. Some of their grievances were even personal in nature…ah, how freedom is born).

Of course I am not one of those wags. I'm rather happy that some of John's nobles thought he was a jerk and therefore asked him to sign a piece of paper that effectively placed a limit on what John could do to them. But like the common belief that the Magna Carta brought freedom to all, the belief that rights can be created at will is wrong. One is merely ignorance of the facts of history and can be corrected, while the other is destroying the very concept of legitimate rights.

You must be wondering what's got me so bothered that I would deal with what some may consider wild exaggerations. It's hardly a new problem as responsible philosophers have written on the subject many times, issuing dire warnings to little avail to those who don't heed them, politicians engaging in "rights" creation throughout this century. Social movements throughout the century have created new rights by the truckload, often one with every different speech.

John Stuart Mill wrote well that "There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism," but he only got it half right. What Mill ignored, in my mind, is how little interference is really needed.

I prefer Ayn Rand's definition of rights because of its strength. Rand believed that rights were the subordination of society to moral law. "A right is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context."

According to Rand, the Founding Fathers of the United States recognized that there was one right that stood paramount over all, and that several other rights logically stemmed from it. The most important right was the right to life. Logically, it must be the beginning of everything, for without that right, all others would be worthless.

The right to life is important, says Leonard Peikoff, because it means that a person has the right to sustain their life by any of the means of a rational person. To sustain that life, a person must gather knowledge and make their choices based on that knowledge.

Three major rights branch off of the right to life, those being the right to liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness.

  1. The right to liberty is the right of the individual to chose to "It is the right to think and choose," said Peikoff, "and then to act in accordance."
  2. The right of private property "is the right to this process". Rand stated that "Just as man can't exist without his body, so no rights can exist without the right to translate one's rights into reality -- to think, to work and keep the results -- which means: the right of property."
  3. The pursuit of happiness grants that each person has the right to live for one's own sake and fulfillment.

The above tells one what rights they have, but not what rights they don't have:

"The right to life is the right to a process of self-preservation; it does not mean that other people must give a person food when he is hungry, medicine when he is sick, or a job when he is unemployed. The right to liberty does not mean that others must satisfy a person's desires or even agree with to deal with him at all. The right to property does not mean the right to be given property by the government, but to produce and thereby earn it. The right to pursuit of happiness is precisely that, pursuit is not necessarily attainment. Otherwise, one could claim that his fellows, by withholding their favours, are destroying his happiness and thereby infringing his rights. What then would become of their rights?" (Peikoff).

So what then is the role of the government? The government's only role is to protect a citizen's rights. The government does that by means of a military to protect its citizens from external aggression, a police force to protect its citizens from aggression from within, and a legal system to safeguard civil rights. A government is granted a monopoly in the use of force which may only be used to protect the rights of citizens.

I would state that all other rights exist if they do not clash with the above. Any rational right, be it the right to free speech, the right of free movement, to free association, and so on, is a logical progression from the right to life.

It's the "created" rights of the left, and sometimes the right, which are the bane of any rational person.

The right to social assistance? Sorry, but that goes against the right of private property.

Egalitarianism? Sorry, but that would destroy the pursuit of happiness.

The right of government to regulate the economy? No, because the government exists only to protect the rights of citizens, not to forcibly take away the efforts of their production.

The anti-abortionist claiming a right to life for an unborn? Sorry, but what about the life of the woman? Hers is the life that we must talk about.

I could keep banging on here, but I trust you get my point. Logically, rights which clash with the right to life do not exist, no matter how badly you would like them to.

The reason that "created" rights cause me so much grief is the immense lie that they perpetrate. It is the lie of irrationality, the utter disrespect for logic, that would lead someone to defend the crime of a thief with the mantra of rights. What other way can one describe someone benefiting by denying someone else their rights? It is the crime of a thief plain and simple.

It also degrades the very meaning of the concept of rights. By focusing on bogus rights that do not exist, the rationally validated rights are placed at the same level. The quickest way to destroy something beautiful is to compare it favourably to something retched.

I say enough. Fight bogus rights by remembering what the real ones are.

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