Individual Rights and Government Wrongs: Life

by | Feb 10, 2012

An excerpt from Chapter 1 of Individual Rights and Government Wrongs. Once upon a time, there existed a nation that respected and protected individual rights. In that nation, individuals were free to live their lives as they judged best. Nearly half of the mail was delivered by private companies. Libraries were founded and operated by […]

An excerpt from Chapter 1 of Individual Rights and Government Wrongs.

Once upon a time, there existed a nation that respected and protected individual rights. In that nation, individuals were free to live their lives as they judged best. Nearly half of the mail was delivered by private companies. Libraries were founded and operated by private associations. There were no public schools, yet individuals were well-educated. Much of the infrastructure—such as sanitation and roads—was provided by private businesses. There was no parasitical “entitlement” state. Government intervention in the lives of the citizens was minimal. This is no fairy tale; it is a matter of historical fact. That nation was the United States of America, as envisioned by our Founding Fathers.

What happened? Why are libraries, schools, and infrastructure now government monopolies? Why do “entitlement” programs threaten to bankrupt our nation? Why does government have an omnipresent impact on our lives?

The answer can be found in another historical fact: America abandoned its founding principle—individual rights. Unrestricted by the principle of individual rights, government has steadily usurped those rights, expanding its power and control over our lives. “There is,” wrote Ayn Rand,

only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action—which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)[1]

Rights are a moral sanction to freedom of action; that is, rights protect your freedom to live your life as you judge best, as long as you respect the mutual rights of others. As we will later see, rights are not a claim to an object, but the freedom to take the actions necessary to produce or earn that object. For example, you have the right to build a house, but you do not have a right to have shelter given to you. You have a right to earn the money to buy a car; you do not have a right to have transportation provided for you. What can stop you from producing or earning the values that you want? What can prevent you from acting as you judge best for your life?

Only physical force, or the threat of force, can prevent you from acting as you choose. If someone ties you up, or hits you with a club, or threatens you with a gun, you cannot act as you would freely choose. Morally, you may not initiate force to interfere with the actions of others, just as they may not initiate force to interfere with your actions. (Self-defense is the use of force in response to those who initiate its use and is therefore moral.) This boundary on the initiation of force includes government, no matter how “noble” the cause, no matter the intentions, no matter the “public interest” that will allegedly result, no matter how many citizens insist upon restricting your actions.

James Madison recognized the threat posed by an uncontrolled majority. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, he wrote:

Wherever the real power in a Government lies, there is the danger of oppression. In our Governments the real power lies in the majority of the Community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended, not from acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.[2]

To Madison, the primary threat to individual liberty under the American system is government acting at the behest of the majority. A government unrestricted by the principle of individual rights is inimical to freedom, whether it is guided by a tyrannical king or the “will of the people.”

Unfortunately, most Americans today believe that government must provide certain services, such as education, mail delivery, parks, welfare, and infrastructure. They think that it is proper to force you to pay for these services through taxes, regardless of your own desires and values. Most Americans accept the premise that the ends—education, parks, and roads—justify the means—coerced payments. They argue that you must be compelled to put aside your self-interest to promote the “public interest.” They believe that you will somehow be better off if you are forced by government to act contrary to your own judgment.

As we will see, these coercive government institutions are impractical. The results are higher costs, fewer (if any) choices, and poor service. They seldom, if ever, deliver the promised results. Postal patrons must endure long lines and surly clerks. Public schools do an increasingly poor job of educating our children. The welfare state has not conquered poverty. Our roads and bridges are crumbling. These government services are impractical because they are immoral. They prohibit you—and all Americans—from living your life as you judge best.

As we will also see, capitalism is practical. The results are lower costs, more choices and opportunities, greater economic progress and innovation, and a higher standard of living for all. These practical benefits are possible only in a social system that recognizes and protects individual rights. Capitalism is practical because it is moral. Capitalism provides the social environment in which you—and all Americans—are free to live as you choose, as long as you respect the mutual rights of others.

America can again be the nation that it once was. America can again be the land of the free. America can again respect and protect individual rights. And that is no fairy tale.

 

[1]. Ayn Rand, “Man’s Rights,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: New American Library, 1964), pp. 93-94.

[2]. James Madison, “Letter to Thomas Jefferson,” Constitution Society, accessed May 27, 2011, http://www.constitution.org/jm/17881017_tj.htm.

Brian Phillips is the founder of the Texas Institute for Property Rights. Brian has been defending property rights for nearly thirty years. He played a key role in defeating zoning in Houston, Texas, and in Hobbs, New Mexico. He is the author of three books: Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, The Innovator Versus the Collective, and Principles and Property Rights. Visit his website at texasipr.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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