Our Natural Rights: Unpacked

Our Natural Rights: Unpacked

Humanity has received this great gift: the endowment of our natural rights. But what makes up this gift? What’s in the box so to speak? Although we touched on them in the previous quill entitled “In the Beginning” we now turn to the task of unpacking all three rights and explaining what they mean for us when they are respected. The subsequent paragraphs are aimed at justifying and expanding on our natural rights to life, liberty and property. 

When looking at the right to life, it’s important to note that synonymous with the word “life” are the words “individuality” and “person”. Within the context of this discussion, these terms all refer to the same principle. As we begin, I feel compelled to ask this question: Does the right to life require much explanation? Without some level of assurance that others won’t arbitrarily take our lives or seriously harm us, how can we move towards human flourishing? In the absence of a secured right to life, both our attention and our efforts become solely focused on self-preservation and/or the protection of our loved ones. To illustrate this, let us look at the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador and their long history of revenge killings. Prior to their eventual reception of Christian missionaries in the late 1950s, the Huaorani permitted the killing of one another by way of spearing in order to resolve tribal issues. In a genealogy conducted during the late 1970s which spanned over five generations, data revealed that 64% of the tribe’s deaths came as a direct result of warfare and/or from threats of violence.[1] No surprise, that by the middle of the twentieth century, the tribe’s standard of living was still so primitive. Today, almost all of the Huaorani have chosen to cease their practice of revenge killings and some have found employment opportunities within the forestry and energy sectors which now operate in the area. Economic investments and expansions in the region proved much easier for the companies involved once the Huaorani began demonstrating a general respect for each individual’s right to life. This respect has resulted in longer life expectancy as well as improvements in their living standards. So respect the person but then what?

As we come to expect to live from one day to another, our thoughts can shift to the principle of liberty: also known as faculties. What is meant by the right to liberty? Simply put, “liberty” or “faculties” equates the freedom to use our talents or labour in the best way we see fit. What happens when we are free to exercise choice in our lives? We make decisions based on what brings us the greatest return at the smallest possible cost. The returns we refer to here are not solely financial as sometimes returns are simply a measure of overall happiness. What do I mean by cost? The choices we make in life come at what economists like to call “opportunity costs.” By definition, “Opportunity costs represent the benefits an individual, investor or business misses out on when choosing one alternative over another.”[2] Basically, if I choose option A over option B, what do I give up that only option B would have brought me? Do we notice how often the idea of choice comes up? Many take this freedom of choice for granted. Let us consider what life would be like if a centrally planned economy dictated how, where and when we applied our talents and labour. I’m terrible at tying knots. However, I have a gift for analytical work which involves numbers and forecasting. What if in a completely planned economy, the only employment offered me was as a Deckhand on a sailing vessel? Well, not only would the ship be in constant peril (I’m serious), the labour itself would require far more effort from me in order to fulfill my duties than an analytical desk job. Even if the position was found to be higher paying than the one better suited for my talents, forgoing the satisfaction and peace of mind which would come with the more suited position could present too high a cost for me to view the increased salary as beneficial. In some systems like Communism, this scenario is a reality. I prefer not to be told I’m going to be a Deckhand. Free labour markets coupled with the freedom of movement are key ingredients for respecting the individual’s right to liberty. So how does all of this tie into the right to personal property?

In his book “The Law”, Frédéric Bastiat has this to say about property: “Man can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labor; by the ceaseless application of his faculties to natural resources. This process is the origin of property.”[3] If we have no right to the fruits of our labour and these fruits are free to be plundered, what creates the incentive for us to labour in the first place? Would it not be quicker to plunder the next person’s goods in order to survive? On this, Bastiat adds, “…plunder…stops when it becomes more painful and more dangerous than labor” (5). How do we make labour less painful than plunder? Simple. Leave the fruits (wages/property) to the labourer. The right to property has profound implications on our overall well-being. Take for instance our homes. If anyone passing by were free to take possession of them upon finding them empty, we would have to ensure they were never left vacant. Do we see how this burden would drastically impact our ability to maintain and/or expand our production? The absence of property rights would necessitate that resources in the area of both time and capital be depleted in order to protect our personal property. Imagine having no legal claim to physical capital such as work tools, the very things that enable tradesmen to produce labour and sustain their lives. The tools disappear taking with them the person’s livelihood. Without the right to property, there are no incentives to production beyond that which is required to live a hand to mouth existence to survive. Once the right to property has been secured, humans can then pursue other ambitions and this is where we really start to see humans flourish. 

Before closing and in the event that their relationship to one another is still not yet clear, it should be stated that all three of the aforementioned rights are interdependent upon each other. Liberty comes from life, property comes out of labour, and life is sustained through our ability to keep the fruits of our labour. The interconnected nature of all three when respected is what lifts up human flourishing. We can choose to walk through life never questioning our relationship with the world around us; but in doing so we will also never experience life’s fullness. Let us now close the box back up, and ready ourselves for what comes next: how natural rights intersect with the state.     

Towards liberty,

OA


[1] Beckerman, Stephen, et al. “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Reproductive Success among the Waorani of Ecuador.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 19 May 2009, www.pnas.org/content/106/20/8134.

[2] Kenton, Will. “Understanding Opportunity Cost.” Investopedia, Investopedia, 29 Jan. 2020, www.investopedia.com/terms/o/opportunitycost.asp.

[3] Bastiat, Frédéric. The Law. Lehi: Libertas Press, 2017. Print. P.5

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