Quick Note: Back to Basics is a series of articles I’ll write from time to time covering some basic principles of liberty. For those who’ve never spent a long time thinking about politics, these are some important issues to consider, and for those who have already considered these questions and reached similar conclusions, you can use these articles to refresh yourself or send this article to someone you know who needs it.
Seldom a day passes without someone complaining about how United States citizens are losing their rights, but how often do we take the time to think about what we mean by our rights? We need to give this some thought, and I suggest we start with the question, “Where do our rights originate?”
The Founding Fathers had an answer, and they stated it explicitly in one of the most famous lines of the Declaration of Independence when they said, “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.” In the Founding Father’s view, the fact that God gave each of us life and free will proved that these rights belong to individuals.
Though somewhat familiar today, this idea was radical at the time of Declaration. The model throughout most of the history of Europe held that God anointed the kings of the world thereby giving them the right to bestow and withdraw the rights of the citizenry as the kings saw fit. Most other societies across the world and throughout history adopted the same political dogma sometimes with and sometimes without the divine justification; almost universally, people viewed the king, emperor or czar as the supreme ruler with unchecked power over all citizens. Individual rights were not even a consideration since people believed all rights were at the whim of the ruler. You might have the ability to speak freely, but that freedom ended the second the person in power said you must be silent.
The idea that every individual had certain rights which could never be violated reversed the prevailing philosophy of the day by suggesting that the power of the government came from the rights of individuals rather than that the rights of individuals came from the power of government. If the old philosophy were true and the government gave citizens their rights, then the government must also have the ability to take those rights away whenever convenient, but if individuals had certain fundamental rights that were given to them by God, then no human government could justifiably take away that which was never theirs to give in the first place. If human rights are God given, then rights transcend the laws of man and become universal. The government may use force to punish someone for speaking freely, but the fundamental right to speak your mind still exists even when the government fails to recognize it.
Of course, faith in God is not a prerequisite for holding a strong view of individual rights. The Founders referred to these rights as, “self-evident,” and you don’t have to read the Bible or believe in God to reach the conclusion that every person has the right to live and find their own path through life though it certainly helped the Founders and many others form this view.
As long as you come to the conclusion that rights belong to the individual, then you have cornerstone off which to build a political system which will protect the rights of mankind, but if you conclude that the government determines man’s rights, then any system based on this premise must quickly devolve into oppression for the political elite can always find excuses for limiting the rights of man.