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.

—The Declaration of Independence

These rights, which together make up the natural law, are the only morally valid philosophical criteria to consult when organizing a people into civil society. Unlike business, which is organized in the most efficient manner, human society is properly organized in the manner that best protects the rights of individuals. When applied to the theory of government, the natural law reasons as follows:

  1. Society is made up of individuals.
  2. Every individual, from the conning tower of his mind, perceives the world equally. Thus, all are of equal value to themselves and none can claim a superior right, the way humans claim dominion over unreasoning animals.
  3. As none can claim the right to harness, drive, milk, or slaughter another, it follows that each individual is entitled to his thoughts and person inviolate, and to control the actions of his voice and limbs as he sees fit, and to retain, for his exclusive disposition, the property generated by his voice and limbs.
  4. From this inviolability of the mind, person and property arise each individual’s inalienable rights. The existence of these rights limits the ways in which individuals can be governed.
  5. Because individuals are all equal, no one is fit to rule over another. Therefore the only way individuals can be morally governed is by law.
  6. All actions taken by servants of the state should be precisely prescribed by law, so that there is rule of law and not the rule of officials. To grant discretion to officials is to grant arbitrary power and to grant arbitrary power is to set one individual to rule over another.
  7. Individuals, living together and not wishing to violate one another, can only live peaceably by using contracts to which they freely agree and laws to which they freely consent. This is why the free market is the only moral economic system and democracy the only valid basis for legislation.
  8. As individuals never unanimously agree on the laws, the minority must submit to the majority, however this necessary evil must be limited by a written constitution that prohibits laws from breaching fundamental rights and limits their scope to that which is absolutely necessary.
  9. As the power to legislate belongs to the individuals who make up a society they must always be able to reclaim this power from their representatives, overrule them, or change them, whenever they choose.
  10. As the legislators are mere agents of the people the power to legislate cannot be given away or further delegated.
  11. The law must protect the rights of individuals from infringement by others. This means affixing responsibility for violations on their author through criminal and civil law, and ensuring that the laws do not insulate people from the consequences of their actions.

Rights generally

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) not only affirms, as I would, that everyone has the right to life, liberty, equality before the law, property and so on: it also affirms the ‘right’ to an adequate standard of living and education and to social security—which are plainly in a quite different category. Other subsequent documents go even further. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) includes the ‘right to work’, the right to the ‘continuous improvement of living conditions’, the right to be ‘free from hunger’ and ‘the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.’ . . These ‘rights’, to the extent that they are even theoretically attainable, can in practice only be fulfilled if the state coerces other individuals by regulations, controls and taxes. By this point one has, in fact, moved the whole distance from liberalism to socialism.

—Margaret Thatcher. The Path to Power, 1995.

Rights limit the actions of government; they are restrictions on what the government can do maliciously (such as executing dissidents) or benevolently (such as outlawing criticism of homosexual practices). (On June 29, 2004, Åke Green, a Pentecostal Christian pastor, was sentenced to one month in prison under Sweden’s law against hate speech for criticising homosexual practices in a sermon). In other words, rights do not involve the government giving, they prevent government from taking. This being the case, so-called economic rights are not rights at all. This is because they can only be delivered by infringing the rights of others. The following economic rights were claimed to exist by President Franklin Roosevelt in his 1944 State of the Union address:

  1. the right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;
  2. the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
  3. the right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
  4. the right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
  5. the right of every family to a decent home;
  6. the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
  7. the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment;
  8. the right to a good education.

Roosevelt was thinking wishfully; in fact all these and other so-called economic rights are material blessings that must be earned and paid for. Only the market, consisting of billions of individuals striving to better themselves, is capable of delivering these bounties. Moreover, there is only one thing that can prevent individuals achieving these blessings, and that is the government attempting to provide them. As Ayn Rand noted: “Observe, in this context, the intellectual precision of the Founding Fathers: they spoke of the right to the pursuit of happiness—not of the right to happiness. It means that a man has the right to take the actions he deems necessary to achieve his happiness; it does not mean that others must make him happy.” (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, 1966.)

It may intuitively seem that a country which only respects true rights and neglects to provide economic rights will be a harsh and barren country, where people starve in the streets. In fact experience teaches us the opposite: it is under communism and Nazism that people died from starvation in the streets; it was under socialism that Britain had its Winter of Discontent; it is in the socialist countries of South America where endless despair and squalor reign; it is in a National Health hospital where patients lie untreated on trolleys for hours. Wherever the government claims to provide for the people, there you find failure and despair. Conversely, wherever the government upholds true rights and does little else, there you find ever-growing prosperity. Frédéric Bastiat observed this 160 years ago, and it remains true today:

Look at the entire world. Which countries contain the most peaceful, the most moral and the happiest people? Those people are found in the countries where the law least interferes with private affairs; where government is least felt; where the individual has the greatest scope, and free opinion the greatest influence; where administrative powers are fewest and simplest; where taxes are lightest and most nearly equal, and popular discontent the least excited and the least justifiable; where individuals and groups most actively assume their responsibilities, and, consequently, where the morals of admittedly imperfect human beings are constantly improving; where trade, assemblies, and associations are the least restricted; where labor, capital, and populations suffer the fewest forced displacements; where mankind most nearly follows its own natural inclinations. (The Law, 1850.)

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove