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What are Natural Rights?

We’ve all heard of Rights: Equal Rights, Human Rights, and various types of political or social “rights” du jour. Amazingly, there are many people who have never heard the term “natural rights” before and don’t know what that means, or don’t have an accurate and clear understanding of what rights are because the term is so often misused. So what are natural rights?

Philosopher John Locke wrote extensively and passionately about natural rights, which include the right to life, liberty, and property. Locke asserted that these rights are inherent in our nature as humans. This means they cannot be given nor taken away by any governments, politicians, nor documents such as the Constitution of the United States or the Bill of Rights—we simply have them.

what are natural rights
“All mankind...being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.” —John Locke

Other natural rights that stem from Locke’s trifecta include the right to self-defense, the right of free movement, the right of privacy, the rights to free and independent thought and speech…the list can go on and on. Essentially, the key to remember here is that a natural right is something that you have the power of choice and action over that does not use force or coercion on others. As Ayn Rand wrote in her book The Virtue of Selfishness: “Remember that rights are moral principles which define and protect a man’s freedom of action, but impose no obligations on other men.”

Right To Life

“All mankind…being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.” —John Locke

By your own efforts, you have the right to work to obtain food, housing, and healthcare. Something that often gets muddled in discussions about this natural right is that some people think these things are owed to them by society. But something is not a true “right” if you use force or coercion to take the things you want and need from others, because that would be encroaching upon their natural rights.

You do not have the natural right to slave labor, which is what you are advocating for if you are demanding food, housing, healthcare, and other life-sustaining goods and services to be given to you for free. Ayn Rand put it this way: “No right can require the material implementation of that right by another man.”

Voluntary exchange and mutual cooperation ensure that everyone’s natural rights are respected, and the more the state can be kept out of transactions between consenting individuals the more freedom, prosperity, and higher quality of life everyone can enjoy.

Liberty

“I have no reason to suppose that he who would take away my liberty, would not when he had me in his power, take away everything else.” —John Locke

This is a word that some people often misuse in a similar way to the word “rights.” They talk about freedom from poverty, freedom from hunger, freedom from debt, etc. Others think of freedom as the license to do anything, without consequences. Both of these approaches are mistaken.

Poverty and hunger are the natural state of humans, and “freedom” from them makes as much sense as talking about freedom from youth or old age. Debt is something that is voluntarily undertaken, and to be “freed” from a debt voluntarily incurred is as silly as saying that you’re “free” from a restrictive piece of clothing you put on—true in a literal sense but not a philosophical one.

The “freedom” from the consequences of your actions is not freedom or liberty at all, because with that liberty you would be able to kill, steal, and enslave others with impunity—not liberty at all, but tyranny. Liberty can only be liberty if everyone possesses it, and so the only possible meaningful definition of liberty is that it is liberty from the interference of others—including the state.

Freedom from the state is important for the preservation of liberty and the other natural rights of individuals. This is what some of the Founding Fathers tried to guarantee with the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights, but as Lysander Spooner wrote: “The Constitution has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it.” Sadly, the only person who truly has the power to defend your personal liberty is yourself, and no government office can be relied upon to safeguard this treasure.

what are natural rights
The US Founders believed that every person had the same rights to life and liberty, and to pursue happiness--and these rights did not come from government.

Property Rights

“Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself.” —John Locke

Writer and economist Murray Rothbard has argued that all natural rights can be traced back to property rights alone: your body is considered your property, therefore you have the natural right to consume whatever you wish and move your body wherever you wish (so long as you respect the private property rights of others).

You have the natural right to preserve your body (your property) via self-defense. Owning property such as land gives you the means to provide life-sustaining food and shelter for yourself. The work of your body—physical and mental—can be traded with other people for property, including food and shelter.

Natural Rights and Voluntaryism

What does this have to do with voluntaryism? Voluntaryists believe in social and financial transactions based strictly on consent. This is completely in line with respecting the natural rights of others and ourselves.

The more you understand about natural rights, the clearer it becomes why we should assert them and defend them. A society free of force and coercion is a society firmly rooted in an understanding of natural rights, and a voluntaryist philosophy naturally and effortlessly follows.

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