There is an old argument about rights that has enjoyed resurgent popularity in these days of “spreading the wealth around.” It says while human beings undoubtedly have rights, they also have responsibilities. In fact, for every right there is a corresponding responsibility that is its complement. One should not be surprised that this line of reasoning appeals to statists of all varieties, because they see in it a way to undercut rights and dress up their schemes of plunder and domination as “responsibilities.” It does not take the clear-thinking mind long to see through these sophisms.
What are the characteristics of a right? A right is an absolute and exclusive claim to something. “Absolute” because you cannot partially have a right to something. You either have a right to it wholly or not at all. “Exclusive” because that which you have a right to no one else can claim a right to.
A right defines something that you are entitled to (there really is a proper use of that word). You do not need anyone’s permission to exercise a right. No one can charge you a fee for exercising it. No government can regulate it. You are entitled to exercise rights without interference by or permission from anyone.
Consider the right to life. Is your right to life absolute or do you only have a right to live under certain conditions? Do you have an exclusive right to live your own life or do others have some partial right to your life? Are you entitled to live, or do other people have a right to charge you a fee in return for allowing you to live? Can any government pass a law or regulation qualifying your right to life?
There are different kinds of rights, based upon their origins. Legal rights derive from a contract. While these rights originate with the consent of others, such as your right to a house that you have purchased, that right nevertheless takes on all of the characteristics described above once you have acquired it. The corresponding responsibility to the right of ownership of the house is the obligation to pay for the house. Your responsibility to pay derives from the contract you entered into. You are obliged to pay because you have consented to do so in exchange for the right to the property previously owned by the seller.
Natural rights are inherent in each person. These are part of and inseparable from our humanity. They cannot be taken away. Even if they are violated, they nevertheless remain. When we recognize something to be “wrong,” it is usually the violation of a right. When we recognize something as “evil,” it is invariably the violation of a natural, inalienable right.
Now, let us consider “responsibilities.” A responsibility is something that you are obliged to do. It is an obligation that you must fulfill in order to comply with a moral or legal code. Responsibilities do not always conform to our wishes. We may prefer to do one thing, but have the responsibility to do another. Responsibilities are actions that we are compelled to do, either by religious doctrine, our own consciences, or other people.
This raises an important question: When is the use of violence justified in compelling someone to fulfill their responsibilities? Can violence or the threat of violence be used in enforcing all responsibilities? Obviously not. There are some responsibilities that cannot be enforced by other people at all.
For example, those who believe in God feel a responsibility to worship or to pray. While this may be their responsibility, it is certainly not enforceable by other people. If there is an absolute, inalienable right of conscience, then no human may use violence against another for failing to fulfill the responsibility of praying. Certainly, God may claim a right to punish someone who has shirked this responsibility, but other people cannot. That is because the obligation related to the responsibility for praying is to oneself and to God, not to anyone else.
Put another way, you have a right of conscience and a corresponding responsibility to act according to the dictates of your conscience. To act against the dictates of your conscience may have negative consequences, but violence inflicted upon you by other people cannot be one of them. Otherwise, you must conclude that it is possible for a right to be destroyed by its corresponding responsibility.
So what responsibilities can be enforced with violence by other people ? Since violence is only justified in defense, the only responsibility that can be enforced with violence is the responsibility not to initiate force against someone else. It is only when one person has failed to fulfill this responsibility that others are justified in using violence. When other people use violence or the threat of violence under any other circumstances, they are failing to fulfill their own responsibility not to initiate force.
This is demonstrated by the natural and inalienable right to liberty. Is this a right? Yes. Does it have a corresponding responsibility? Yes, the responsibility not to commit aggression against the equal rights, including liberty, of others. Can others use violence or the threat of violence to enforce this responsibility? Yes. This is the only responsibility that can be enforced with violence. Attempting to enforce any other responsibility with violence is to commit aggression, by definition.
Most often, It is not the rights to life, liberty, or conscience the statist has in mind when he begins his sermon about responsibilities. While he may be willing to violate all of these rights as his means, it is rarely his end. No, the statist’s primary object is not your life or liberty, but your property. By property, I do not mean exclusively or even primarily land ownership, but all of the fruits of your labor. It is here the statist will stand up to say, “Yes, you have a right to acquire and own property, but you have a corresponding responsibility to pay your ‘fair share’ to society.” Of course, the statist claims the right to use the threat of violence – the government – to compel you to fulfill this responsibility. But where does this responsibility come from? And is property a natural and inalienable right?
There are only three ways to justly acquire property. One must either take it directly out of nature, create it with materials taken directly out of nature, or take possession of someone else’s property by agreement. This last means of acquisition may be the result of a gift or a trade. It is not important whether the previous owner was compensated; only that he voluntarily consented to the transfer.
Most people acquire their property by exchanging their labor for the property of others. In other words, they are employed by others to perform a certain type of work. In exchange for the work, they are given property in the form of money, with which they can acquire still other types of property. Depending upon the scarcity of the skills and experience they offer to purchasers of their services (employers), they may be able to sell their services for larger or smaller wages.
Whether an individual sells it for $20 thousand, $200 thousand, or $2 million dollars per year in compensation, no one would deny that his labor itself is his property. He has a right to this property, meaning his claim upon it is absolute and exclusive. He is entitled to own his labor and to dispose of it as he sees fit. Those are the bases of his right to sell it.
It must follow that he also has an absolute and exclusive right to those wages. After all, he has just exchanged part of his life for them. Who else could claim any right to part of his life? The wage earner will invariably exchange most of his wages for other goods, but his right to whatever he acquires with his wages is identical to his right to his labor itself, which is merely a portion of his life. Denying this right necessarily supposes other people have a right to part or all of his labor, and therefore part of his life.
There was once an institution wherein one group of people claimed a right to the labor of others. It was quite rightly abolished.
The statist will answer that the wages were a “blessing of society” for which the wage earner owes some portion back. If that were true, one would have to question the rationality and efficiency of this mysterious entity called “society,” which chooses to bestow blessings upon people, only to immediately demand part of those blessings back. Why not simply bless the individual less, leaving both parties square?
In reality, the wage earner has already paid his “fair share” to society. For the $20 thousand or $20 million he has earned, he has provided exactly $20 thousand or $20 million worth of labor. How do we know that his labor was worth that amount? The same way that we know the market value of anything. It is the price that others are willing to pay for it. Perhaps our wage earner is a painter. In that case, he has exchanged exactly $20 thousand in painting services for $20 thousand in cash. Nothing was given to him by any nebulous entity called “society.” He created that wealth himself with his own labor. To keep it and dispose of it as he sees fit is undeniably his right.
If there is any justification for a corresponding responsibility to society, it can only be the responsibility to pay for some service that “society” has rendered to him. As we have discussed, the obligation associated with a responsibility to pay for something derives from a contract. If one agrees to purchase something, one has the responsibility to pay the previous owner the agreed upon price. This responsibility corresponds to the right of ownership of the purchased property.
So what has our wage earner purchased from society? What has he consented to buy? Accepting the extremely elastic definition of “consent” employed by proponents of constitutional government, he has consented to purchase protection of his life, liberty, and property. As Thomas Paine put it, his responsibility is to “surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest.” If there is any responsibility incumbent upon him, it is to pay for these services rendered and no more. Even taxation for this purpose has a dubious moral foundation, as our wage earner has never really consented to purchase even this. That is why Paine also referred to government as “a necessary evil.”
But let us assume that somehow this consent is real. Like the purchaser of the house, the citizen has entered into a contract. His responsibility to pay for protection of his property corresponds to his right to demand that the protection he has purchased be provided.
For the statist, this logical connection between rights and responsibilities does not exist. He asserts that the corresponding responsibility destroys the right. For him, the citizen has a responsibility to suffer the very crime he established government to protect him from in the first place – the invasion of his property. He is not entitled to the protection that he has purchased, but instead has a responsibility to tolerate its antithesis. As John Locke wrote, “the preservation of property being the end of government, and that for which men enter into society, it necessarily supposes and requires, that the people should have property, without which they must be supposed to lose that, by entering into society, which was the end for which they entered into it; too gross an absurdity for any man to own.”
Absurdity is at the root of all statist thinking, producing bizarre and disastrous results. The statist seeks to grant rights to the labor of others, such as healthcare, education, or housing, with corresponding responsibilities for others to pay for these services under the threat of violence if they don’t. Neither these rights nor these responsibilities can possibly exist, as the supposed rights are claimed by one person and the corresponding responsibility placed upon another, whose own rights are therefore violated. If one wonders how a government can get so out of control that it spends all it can possibly tax from its citizens and all it can possibly borrow, yet still seems to need more, false rights and responsibilities are a good place to start.
 Paine, Thomas Common Sense from Paine: Collected Writings Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. New York, NY 1955 pg. 7
 Paine, pg. 6
 Locke, John Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government from Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration Digireads.com Publishing Stillwell, KS 2005 pg. 113
Photo by Arvind Balaraman
Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.
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