We often hear about and talk about our rights, but what does that really mean to people in a free society? Is there one all inclusive set of rights? Who grants these rights? Can rights be abridged, denied, or revoked? There are three categories of rights; unalienable, civil, and political.
According to the Founders, unalienable rights are endowed upon man by his Creator. For those that do not believe in a Creator, rationally they must acknowledge that man existed on earth before government because government is a man-made institution. In either case, man existed in a state of nature without any government.
Englishman John Locke provided the basis for nature law and natural rights theory. Locke declares that we are all by nature free and equal. To be in a condition of freedom and equality, prior to government, is to be in the state of nature. The state of nature may be construed as a description of the fundamental character of the human condition, and not as an historical circumstance. In other words, it is the state we are naturally in, not a state we were in. Moreover, Locke posits that the state of nature is of perfect freedom, but this does not mean a liberty to do anything we desire. Liberty does not mean license.
The Declaration of Independence states there are certain self-evident truths about mans fundamental status with nature. The document states there are certain rights – unalienable – that man possesses in a state of nature, and these are known laws and rights, which are transcendent, eternal, immutable, and unchanging. The Founders relied heavily upon Locke’s natural law and natural rights philosophy.
Unalienable rights are often referred to as negative rights. That is each man possesses certain rights as a matter of his existence and to posses those rights it obliges nothing from any other man except for the recognition that everyone possesses the same rights. Some examples of unalienable rights are freedom/right of conscience, right to associate, right to contract, right to trade and barter, right to property, right to self-defense, right to speech, right to life, right to sustain your own life, etc. These rights are never granted to man by other men, nor are these rights to be abridged or denied to man by other men.
In a state of nature man’s first priority is to preserve himself. That is to sustain his life. Failure to sustain your own life results in death. To preserve his own life, man employs his physical and/or intellectual talents to produce. What man produces as a result of his effort is his property. Property can take on many forms; money/currency, land, food, shelter, etc. Man exercising his unalienable right to trade and barter can produce things other men desire, therefore he can then trade/barter for the goods or services he desires which results in a free market economy. Goods are produced and services are provided based on the desires of others. If man produces widgets and there is no desire/demand for widgets, the man producing widgets will have difficulty sustaining his life. This natural demand for good and services is met by other men creating an equivalent supply resulting in a free market economy allowing men to sustain their life. This economic activity occurs naturally and without the need for government or government intervention.
The Founders and Framers believed man is capable of self-governance. If man is not capable of self-governance than what gives man the capacity to govern others? The Founders and Framers again relied upon Locke, and others, in there views on civil society. In order to preserve our lives, liberty, and property we choose to come out of a state of nature and enter into civil society by an act of consent known as the social contract – referred to by Locke as a compact. There are certain unstable conditions in the state of nature where force and fraud are employed to violate our unalienable rights. To better preserve our unalienable rights civil society is formed, constituting the social contract. The only legitimate foundation for any political rule is its voluntary acceptance by the citizens.
Thus, going from a state of nature into a civil society, man institutes government with the sole purpose of protecting life, liberty, and property. This is the sole purpose of government and government is instituted amongst men for this purpose only. In a state of nature when force and fraud are employed rights are violated. In civil society when government becomes destructive to the very purpose it was instituted, government becomes tyrannical and is more dangerous and destructive to man than if man remained in a state of nature and did not enter into civil society. Jefferson eloquently encapsulated these principles in the Declaration of Independence. These principles formed the basis for both the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union and its successor, the Constitution.
Now that unalienable rights are well understood, what precisely are civil and political rights? First, these are rights that don’t exist in a state of nature and are a direct result of forming civil society and the political institutions created when man forms government. Some examples of civil rights are the right to a trial by jury, due process, and being secure in your person and your things. An example of a political right is the right to vote.
Certain civil rights are closely tied to unalienable rights as they are extensions to protecting unalienable rights. For instance, in a state of nature there is no concept of due process. One man is wronged by another and the wronged man attempts to exact justice — his own definition of justice — on the person that wronged him. The wronged man is the judge and jury. A right to trial by jury ensures the judicial institutions established by man affords every man the presumption of innocence, to be treated equally and fairly, to defend himself in a court of law, and to be judged by a jury of his peers. Likewise, it affords the wronged man a process to ensure his life, liberty, and property is protected. Political rights on the other hand are correlated to participation in the form of government established by the social contract.
Likewise, man must also be secure in his life, liberty, and property from the very government he established. Just as man cannot violate the unalienable rights of others, government cannot violate mans’ unalienable rights either. Certain safeguards and protections are established to prohibit government from acting outside the legal authority delegated to it. The Bill of Rights provides an excellent example of limitations placed upon government by the states and the people.
During the health care debates we often heard health care is a right. The logical conclusion of those proclaiming health care to be a right was government should provide health care to all. Precisely, what type of right does man have to health care? First, we should agree man is free to seek out health care. Throughout the history of man, people got hurt or sick. In every case, the best medical care and technology was available at the time. Man was free to seek care if he determined that was the best action. Man paid for the services of the person providing care. Is health care an unalienable right?
The answer is a resounding no! Remember, unalienable rights obliges nothing from others. The right to seek health/medical care is unalienable. The right to expect another person to provide you health care, health care insurance, etc. is not unalienable at it obliges another person to provide a good or service to you. Government enacting legislation to force one person to pay for the health care or health insurance of another is nothing less than coercion and theft. The government must take property produced by one person – typically money – and give that property to another person that has no rightful claim to the property. Moreover, by confiscating the property of one man you reduce, or possibly prohibit, that man from sustaining his own life and the life of his family. It was established that property and mans right to his own property is the implementation of man sustaining his life. Which is mans first priority – to preserve himself.
Therefore, government enacting health care legislation actual violates mans unalienable rights to property as government, through force or coercion, takes property from one and gives to another. Government has created conditions for man worse than his condition in a state of nature. Government violated the very purpose for which it was instituted; to protect mans unalienable right. In a state of nature when one man takes another man’s property, rights are violated. Government acting under the veil of legitimacy, and under threat of fine and imprisonment, acts tyrannically whenever it violates our unalienable rights.
In conclusion, there is a clear distinction between unalienable rights and civil or political rights. The former are possessed by all men and exist in a state of nature before government is instituted. The social contract establishes government for the sole purpose of better protecting mans unalienable rights, and man continues to possess these unalienable rights under any form of government. The latter are rights established under government to provide certain protections to man from government, to establish certain principles of equality before the law, and to ensure all men can participate in the political institutions he established. If government violates our unalienable rights its actions are tyrannical and illegitimate.
As Jefferson said so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence, “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, 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 to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to 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.”
In three sentences, Jefferson summarizes the bedrock principles upon which our Union was established, the purpose of government, and the right of the people to alter or abolish it when government acts contrary to its purpose.
 Two Treatises of Government by John Locke. Edited by Mark Goldie. Introduction pages xxiii – xxix