Natural Rights

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Natural Rights has always been a propaganda term, from its first invention as an answer to the rights of kings. Nobody has yet really answered Jeremy Bentham's charge of "nonsense on stilts". Most libertarianism (Nozick, for example) is still behind the times here. Also known as "unalienable rights" or "inalienable rights".

Natural rights are exactly as knowable as invisible pink unicorns: anybody can fantasize them any way they want. During the Enlightenment, when liberalism was invented, liberal natural rights were a propaganda tool used to undermine the equally fictitious natural rights of kings. But even among liberals there was no agreement about whether slaveholding was a natural right or not, because natural rights are really just words. Bentham famously dismissed the idea of natural rights as "nonsense on stilts". Unfortunately, most libertarians (including Nozick) start with this philosophical abomination rather than more factual alternatives.

Natural rights have a terrible historical record. Natural rights in the 19th century and earlier considered wives, children and slaves as property, as they had been for millennia. Look at Patrick Henry, Mr. "Give me liberty or give me death": he was a slave owner, as were many of the other founders of the US who howled for their own liberty, but not that of their wives or slaves.


Anarchical Fallacies (book, online)
Jeremy Bentham's scathing criticism of the revolutionary French "Declaration of Human Rights", containing the best denunciation of the idea of natural rights ever: "nonsense on stilts".
Coercion and the “Taxation is Theft” Argument [More...]
"The belief that taxation is theft obviously implies that property rights are absolute or at least high in value. But why on earth should property rights rank above human life?" Also Ludwig von Mises declares "There is, however, no such thing as natural law."
Foucault in cyberspace -- Chapter 2: Libertarianism, Property and Harm [More...]
(Starts on page 11.) Law Professor James Boyle points out that libertarianism fails to justify which rights we should have in three ways: common law, natural rights and Property. "When the vague first principles turn more specific, then the fun really begins."
Listen Libertarians! Part 4 [More...]
Part 4 of David Ellerman's review of John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness. Liberalism’s faux "inalienable rights" theory.
Look at the Violence Inherent in the System! [More...]
Libertarian Gene Callahan points out that private property is a social invention, which explains why some nations have "trespass" where others have "right to wander".
Natural Rights Don't Exist [More...]
Jonathan Wallace skillfully uses Hume's condemnation of deriving an "ought" from an "is" to show errors in Locke and Hobbes. He then endorses non-cognitivist interpretations of rights talk.
Reading The Ethics of Liberty, Part 2 – Rothbard on Natural Law [More...]
Matt Zwolinski points out that right at the beginning, The Ethics of Liberty runs into the famous "is-ought problem" that David Hume identified as a fundamental problem of much philosophy.
The Horror of Rothbardian Natural Rights [More...]
Murry Rothbard argues for legal rights of parents to kill their children by starvation.
The Lockean Fable of Initial Acquisition (16 links)
Also known as the labor theory of property. John Locke tells a story (nothing more) that ignores the fact that current real-world ownership is based on past theft and conquest (expropriation) not initial acquisition (appropriation.) Initial acquisition without government is a myth. "Mixing of labor" is merely expenditure of effort: it does nothing to create property because property is a socially constructed institution.
What are "Natural Rights"? [More...]
A good libertarian critique of Timothy Sandefur and Randy Barnett's ideas of natural rights. Shows that the emphasis on negative rights is arbitrary: positive rights are equally well supported by the same arguments.


Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense -- nonsense upon stilts. [...] Right, the substantive right, is the child of law; from real laws come real rights; from imaginary laws, from laws of nature, fancied and invented by poets, rhetoricians, and dealers in moral and intellectual poisons, come imaginary rights, a bastard brood of monsters....
Jeremy Bentham, "Anarchical Fallacies"
One cannot overstate the childishness of the ideas that feed and stir the masses. Real ideas must as a rule be simplified to the level of a child's understanding if they are to arouse the masses to historic actions. A childish illusion, fixed in the minds of all children born in a certain decade and hammered home for four years, can easily reappear as a deadly serious political ideology twenty years later.
Sebastian Haffner, "Defying Hitler: A Memoir", pg. 17.
There is, however, no such thing as natural law and a perennial standard of what is just and what is unjust. Nature is alien to the idea of right and wrong. “Thou shalt not kill” is certainly not part of natural law.
Ludwig von Mises, "Human Action: The Scholar's Edition" p. 716.
Libertarians of course deny the institutional conception of property. Fundamental to their arguments are ideas of noncooperative natural property and pre-social ownership. They assume the lucidity of these concepts, and take it as self-evident that property involves unrestricted rights to use and dispose of things.
Samuel Freeman, "Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View" pg. 130
The essential unifying idea in this core of libertarian ideology is that the existence of rights and the propriety of liberty are either obvious, or matters of faith, or sufficiently explained by the word “natural”; accordingly, deeper moral or philosophic arguments in support of them are unnecessary. Why provide philosophic arguments for that which people can know by just opening their eyes, or closing their eyes, or waving their hands and saying “natural”? The fact is that people do not and cannot know anything about the nature of rights or the propriety of liberty by such means.
Craig Biddle, "Libertarianism vs. Radical Capitalism"
The only self-evident fact about rights is that rights are not self-evident.
Craig Biddle, "Libertarianism vs. Radical Capitalism"
Libertarian capitalism... is a curious ideology in many ways... On the one hand, the sanctity of private property and private contracts is held to be a matter of inalienable natural right, guaranteed by the fundamental facts of morality, if not a basic part of Objective Reality; capitalism is the Right Thing to Do. On the other hand, much effort is devoted to arguing that unfettered laissez-faire capitalism is also the economic system which will produce the greatest benefit for the greatest number, indeed for all, if only people would just see it. Natural right therefore coincides exactly with personal interest. A clearer example of wishful thinking could hardly be asked for.
Cosima Shalizi, "Liberty! What Fallacies Are Committed in Thy Name!"
Rousseau asks us to imagine someone who is not convinced of natural rights to property, at least as interpreted by the richer laborers in society. The responder has a rational complaint: who made you [the rich, the “haves"] judge of where your property rights begin and end? It’s a dangerous juridical power, one that can easily be used to keep people hungry and powerless. In light of the suffering of the property-less, why should they ever think that the claims of the rich and powerful are naturally legitimate?
Kevin Vallier, "Rousseau’s Challenge to Libertarianism"
Nobody agrees about what natural rights are any more than they agree on which gods to believe in. Because they are just made-up claims. Real rights require enforcement by society: we put our money where our mouths are.
Mike Huben, in comments for "Taxation Is Not Theft"
Theories of "natural law" and the "law of nations" are another excellent example of discussions destitute of all exactness. [...] "Natural law" is simply that law of which the person using the phrase approves[....]
Vilfredo Pareto, "The Mind and Society" p. 245.