What Is The Source of Rights?

What is the actual source of rights?  We sometimes refer to “God Given Rights”, but is there a God to give us rights?  The closest thing we have along that line is the “Ten Commandments”, but they do not appear to be a list of “rights” as such.  We have the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, but these too appear to be more the creation of those who wrote the Constitution in the first place. So just where do rights come from?  Obviously a “right” also requires someone to enforce it against those who would take it away from you. Generally today that would be the police and the legal system, but the police are enforcers of the “law” as written.  And the laws are written by government.  Here in the USA this is Congress, its counterparts in state governments, and local legislative bodies composed generally of elected officials.  So we could say that the “State” issues “rights” in that it is the deciding body as to if a “right” exists or not.  And those decisions are dependent upon who gets elected to the state or federal legislative body.  Obviously what one legislative body decides can be changed in the next election, or by a superior legislative body, with the US Supreme Court being the ultimate deciding body so far as the US federal government is concerned.  Still, even the Supreme Court can make a decision and then later on another group of justices can decide that the first decision was “wrong” and that their new decision is the correct one.  Leaving us with the situation where there seems to be no real basis of deciding what rights exist and what rights don’t exist except for what the voters decide.  For example, in Roe vs Wade the Supreme Court determined that a woman had a right to have an abortion subject to a rather arbitrary time after conception.  However, various state governments have written legislation that effectively denies women this right, and so far the Supreme Court hasn’t made a determination as to whether or not their previous decision still stands or not.  So it would appear that what rights you have are very dependent upon what the Supreme Court decides.  Or upon legislation that passes Congress and is signed into law by the President.  Not a very firm “foundation” for our rights…  Is there a better one?

Looking back in history, people’s rights appear to be relatively limited to whatever their ruler wanted them to have.  Most of the available data refers more to various laws that people were required to follow, laws given by their ruler for the better ordering of their society.  The idea that people might have rights against actions of their government is relatively modern.  One example of this was the Magna Charta which established limits upon the power of the King of England relative to that of his nobles.  However further on back we have the examples of the Republic of Rome where there was some attempt to bring the viewpoints of the common people to light in the Roman Senate.  Although the best example of the rights of citizens (defined rather narrowly) was the demarchy of the city/state of Athens where representatives were selected by lot to rule over the people.  

We should however note that in all of these societies, there was a limitation on rights by legal status.  Only “citizens” had rights.  Slaves had none.  Only free men could bear arms,  something that was forbidden to slaves.  In Nordic societies a thrall (slave) could become a freeman, and one of the marks of his new freedom was that he was given the weapons of a free man, although he still owed loyalty to his master.  In this aspect we may note that the bearing of arms was a mark of your social status in your society.   As free men had “rights” that were supposed to observed, we might note that there is also some evidence that the bearing of arms had a relationship to being a free person as no slave was generally allowed to possess weapons as a general rule.

One interesting aspect of groups gaining rights was related to possession of arms.  To a certain degree a group whose members were armed was more likely to be granted rights. In this aspect the Black Panthers, while not that numerous, did “hint” at the fact that Blacks in the US in the 1960’s were not willing to accept second class status any more.  No doubt this had its effect upon Congress and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of the time and its signature into law by President Johnson.  There is also a hint in the thinking of gun owning Americans that “citizens have rights, subjects do not”.  It is noteworthy in this aspect that in England the right of bearing arms is gone, as is to some degree even the right of self defense.  Which fits in with the liberal (leftist) viewpoint that only the police and the military should have access to firearms.  Which historically relates back to the idea that people who are “subjects”, are more like “serfs”, that is, people who have few rights against the wishes and desires of their “betters”.  The mindset of some of our political leaders appears to be rather along these lines, that they are our “betters” and that we should do what they wish, not what we wish.  Most of these tend to be on the “left”, but you can see the same ideas in a slightly different “flavor” with those on the right.  Tyranny is not the preserve of either the right or the left as history has shown.

There is also the point that we won our freedom from King George and England through force of arms.  In effect, it was the use of violence against England that won us our freedom from King and Parliament.  In this aspect, the Second Amendment was written upon the basis that the safeguard of rights was based upon the private possession of firearms.  And experience has shown that a disarmed people generally starts losing the rights they once had.  We’ve seen this happening in Europe and to some degree here.  Obviously even “democratic” government can become oppressive, especially if there is a financially powerful group who can in effect select who is allowed to run for office and who is not allowed to run.  Something to think about, especially today…


About muskegonlibertarian

77 year old retired owner of a security guard agency. Member of the Libertarian Party.
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