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.


“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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2 thoughts on “What are Natural Rights?

  1. Because “Voluntaryism” is not well known, and the meaning of “Anarchy” has been corrupted, co-opted, & appropriated, I wrote this:

    Societies and The Interactions of Their Individuals

    Society, as used in the title, means masses of individual humans. For without at least two individuals interacting, a Society does not exist. Society comes from Latin societatem (nominative societas) “fellowship, association, alliance, union, community,” from socius “companion, ally,”

    I submit that if somebody is using Threat, Duress, or Coercion, also known as Extortion, to force another human to obey their will, then this is NOT a social interaction. Even the interaction itself is initiated by force. The person being extorted is not voluntarily interacting.

    Panhandlers asking for handouts on the side of the road are asking you to voluntarily interact with them. They are asking you to voluntarily surrender some property of yours to them. Typically money. Even if they are putting on a fraudulent act to tug your heartstrings to get you to give them some money, it’s still your choice to give money or not.

    Compare that to government officers, agents, and employees. They do not ask you to voluntarily surrender your money. Sure, they may say things like, “Would you please pay the taxes you owe?” or “Would you please pay the fines you owe?”, but do not be mislead. If you refuse to give them your money, people with guns will come and take your property (money or other property), cage you, or even kill you. Their interaction with you is non-voluntary on your part. If you forget those facts because they said “please”, you are ignoring the guns under the paperwork.

    And then there’s this “taxes you owe” BS. Who says I owe? By what authority? That’s a discussion for another essay.

    Cops pulling you over to the side of the road is another act that forces your interaction to be non-voluntary. You don’t really have a choice, because cops will escalate violence and force against you until you comply, possibly even ramming and damaging the vehicle you are driving to make it inoperative in order to get you to comply. The moment that a cop lights up his disco lights, he has initiated a non-voluntary interaction that you are (allegedly) required to obey.

    There you are: Going down the road; Going about your everyday affairs of life and minding your own business; Harming no one; and a bully threatens to use escalating force and violence against you to make you stop.

    That bully has initiated threat, duress, coercion, that is: Extortion against you the moment he lights you up. Mostly to extort fines from you. Just another form of taxation in my book.

    Do what you are told to do or they will hurt you. This is how EVERY government works. Past, present, or future.

    Not wanting to be extorted sure looks like wanting to be left alone to me. Not wanting to be threatened with death to force obedience sure looks like wanting to be left alone to me. If you know you want to be left alone and not threatened nor extorted, then I submit that you want to live in a Voluntary Society.

    If you were being left alone, as would be the case if you were living in a Voluntary Society, then nobody would be forcing you to non-voluntarily interact with them; nobody would be forcing you to non-voluntarily give up or surrender your property to them.

    The members of a Voluntary Society would understand YDOMism and honor its precepts. YDOM means You Don’t Own Me. Any five to eight year old child, who exclaims to another child, “Who made you the boss of me?” inherently understands YDOMism’s basic “Don’t tell me what to do!” Why have adults lost, forgot, or ignored this point?

    The members of a Voluntary Society would not be involuntarily subjected to the government’s indoctrination apparatus such as I was when I was incarcerated for ≅12 years in a Government Indoctrination Center. The GIC a.k.a. The Public School system, is where I was forced to learn about “government” according to that very same government’s one sided criteria. All of us formerly detained in these United States GIC’s were forced to learn of this organic document called “The Declaration of Independence” wherein these words were contained:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

    I can personally attest to the failure, deliberate in my opinion, to teach Critical Thinking Skills which would include being able to see and thus focus on contradictions.

    If all “men” are created equal, wouldn’t that include men such as those owned by other men and generically called Slaves? And what of women? They weren’t created with rights equal to men?

    The term “Rights” is problematic and a topic for a different essay. I translate “Rights” as the equal lack of authority over anybody else. Which could be defined as a right to not be ruled by your equals. If we are all equals, then “Who made you the boss of me?” is the purpose of YDOMism.

    In a voluntary society, there would be an understanding that nobody was born with authority over anybody else, thus attempts to act as owners of other people would be easily observable.

    Alas, that is not the case I observe on this planet. Most do not understand that we live in a society that lets a select few act and rule others as if they own those others. In online discussions and observations, I’ve seen people strenuously, emphatically, and emotionally defending being owned. These people do not understand that they are arguing for their own treatment as slaves. These people do not have a clear view nor a clear understanding that nobody owns them.

    Government Indoctrination Centers, anyone?

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