(A classic read from the March 1963 Edition of The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty.)
The authority of government comes either from the people or from some source above and beyond the people. That statement is, of course, a simple truism. But as we shall see, there are implications in that truism that are not generally understood.
To bring this issue into focus, let us begin with a brief comparison of the primary difference between the ancient and modern concepts of the sources of governmental authority. Generally speaking, with a few exceptions, the ancient concept was that the authority of government came from a source above and beyond the people. Most often, the source was heredity; the king ruled because he was the son of the previous king. Sometimes the source was conquest; might makes right. Oft-times, the ruler cited “god” as the source of his authority to compel people to obey him; he claimed to be either god or the direct and chosen representative of god on earth. But whatever the claimed source for the authority of government may have been, at least it was almost never the people themselves. Their f unction was to obey the government, and even to worship it.
The modern concept is, of course, just the opposite—at least, in theory. That is, government derives its legitimate authority from the people. No person has any right by birth (or any mandate from God) to rule over others. Might does not make right. And neither the institution nor the officials of government should ever be worshiped.
Certainly that is the traditional concept of the source of governmental authority in the United States. It was proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence. It was confirmed by the known philosophies of the founders of our nation. And it was clearly written into our Constitution.
According to our forefathers, individual persons have natural and inherent rights. The purpose of government is to protect those rights. And the powers not specifically delegated to government for that purpose are retained by the people themselves. Further, when government exceeds its proper function and attempts to deprive persons of their natural rights, the people are fully justified in rebelling and establishing a new government.
While the documents of other nations have phrased this idea differently (sometimes radically differently), the modern concept of the source of governmental authority is still clearly identified as the people. Even dictators pay lip service to that concept. Mr. Khrushchev makes his decisions in the name of the Russian people, and he claims that his authority comes from the people. The same sentiments are voiced by almost all other modern rulers, elected or self-appointed.
That introduction brings us to our first question, which happens to be one of the oldest of all philosophical issues: Does the individual really have any rights outside of those granted to him by government? If so, what are they? And since, in that case, the fundamental rights of man do not come from government, where do they come from?
Inherent Rights at Birth
It is my contention that each person does have individual and inherent rights that come with him at birth. It is true that the existence of human rights cannot 3e proved in the laboratory sense. But no human aspirations, ideas, or activities can be proved in that manner; for the laboratory requirement of “holding other things equal” can never apply to human beings in real life. Principles of human relationships can only be found by observing how human beings act universally, how they always have acted in real situations.
My thesis is that men always base their actions on the supposition that they have rights that inhere in themselves as self-controlling human beings. In fact, they cannot avoid doing so. For example, men always instinctively resist the persons who try to deprive them of life—all men, without exception. And when they think about the issue after the immediate danger is over, they invariably devise laws and institutions to protect their lives.
Thus, since all men have always acted in this fashion, we are faced with an undeniable truth of universal human action that identifies a proper relationship among men—that is, a man has an inherent right to protect his life against anyone who attempts to deprive him of it. Even the persons who scoff at the existence of this universal principle always base their actions on it, in one way or another. And even the most ruthless of murderers will do everything he can to retain his own life.
Since this inherent and individual right to life comes with each person when he is born, the source of the right is necessarily above and beyond any governmental institution that men may correctly or incorrectly establish and support. The sad fact that a man may indeed be killed by a superior force—natural or man-made—is related to the issue only in the sense that it causes the question to be raised.
An Instinct for Liberty
In addition to a right to life, man also has an inherent right to liberty. And always, men attempt to preserve their freedom of action. When they give it up, it is always due to a superior force or to a lack of knowledge that their liberty is being lost. Even after long training to the contrary, the natural and universal instinct for freedom of action is still present in every person. Strong proof of the existence of this inherent and individual right to physical liberty is offered again and again by the actions of seemingly docile slaves who, sooner or later, revolt and reclaim their freedom, or die in the effort. Unless they were instinctively aware of their right to liberty, slaves would make no attempt to regain it. For men do not act haphazardly and without reason. And the fact that some persons may actually prefer the combination of bondage and security to the combination of freedom and responsibility proves only that men have different scales of values. That unfortunate choice does not in any way deny the existence of the right to liberty.
Individual’s Right to Property
In one way or another, men also instinctively attempt to preserve their property. This has always been true of all men in all ages. This is a universal truth of human action. It is unthinkable that any person would ever have collected or created anything at all unless he had an inherent concept of the right of ownership. This concept of a right to his own property came with the first man who ever used reason, and the source of his individual right to his legitimately acquired property is the same source that supplied him with the ability to reason. Most definitely, that source is not government.
The fact that men may give up their property voluntarily or because of coercion is totally unrelated to this issue of a right to ownership. And the fact that this inherent right to legitimate property is sadly misunderstood and abused is another question entirely, and does not invalidate the principle involved.
Individual and inherent rights to life, liberty, and property do exist and always have existed. They exist because man is self controlling and is thus unavoidably responsible for maintaining his own life, his own liberty, and his own property on which both his life and liberty are necessarily based. That is a universal law of nature and of life, and no wishful thinking or pious platitudes can change it. If man had not generally followed this principle, he would have disappeared from this earth long ago.
Laws Follow Rights
Those three basic rights for all individuals did not come into existence because men established governments. Quite the contrary! As the political economist, Frederic Bastiat, phrased it so succinctly, “It was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.” In reality, the justification for having a government at all is to prevent any person from infringing upon the inherent and equal rights of any other person.
Again, if we are searching for principles of human relationships, we must observe how people act, how all men always have acted in real life. For example, why does any man ever rebel against the legal authority that rules over him? The fact that men throughout history have revolted against their own governments gives overwhelming support to the theory that men have inherent rights, and that they know it. There have been many thousands of revolutions since evil or ignorant men first learned how to organize the police force (government) in such a way as to deprive others of their lives, liberty, and property. And in almost all of those revolutions, you can generally find a common theme. That is, the rebelling people claimed that their own government was oppressing them and depriving them of their lives or liberty or property.
If rights came from government to the people—and the people knew it—obviously there would never be a revolution. For the people would then be rebelling against the known source of their rights and thus against their own existence. That, of course, would be unthinkable. Thus, positive proof of the validity of the concept of inherent and individual rights above and beyond government is offered by the fact that people do rebel against authority when they, individually, disagree with the authority. With the exception of the so-called “palace revolutions,” the reason has always been the same—the suppression by the government of some natural right that inheres in every individual because he is a self-controlling human being. And the sad fact that; he people may lose more than they; gain by a revolution (for example, Russia in 1917, Hungary in 1956, and Cuba in 1959) is not related:o the issue.
At this point, I have summarized the case as best I can for the thesis that all human rights inhere in the individual, and that government has no legitimate authority except that given to it by the people. That brings us to our second question and the primary issue of this discussion.
Where Does It Come From?
Do you know of any action now being performed by government that would be illegitimate and immoral for you to do as an individual? If so, here is a disturbing question: What is the source of the government’s authority to perform that action? For if no individual possesses the right in the first place, it is self-evident that no individual can logically and legitimately delegate it to government. Nor can two or more individuals legitimately do in common what is forbidden to them individually. Thus if the government is doing anything that logic and morality forbid to all individuals, then the government’s authority to perform that act is obviously derived from a source above and beyond the people.
Let us test this idea on several specific functions now performed by the government of the United States. For example, our government has the responsibility for protecting equally the lives of all citizens. Is that a legitimate function of government? Well, does each person have the right to protect his own life? We know that each does. Therefore, if a person wishes, he can delegate that right to his government. Since each of us has the right individually, obviously we also have it collectively. Thus, we individually and collectively delegate to a common police force (government) the authority to protect us from domestic murderers and foreign invaders. That function of government is clearly legitimate.
Do you as an individual have a legitimate right to use violence or the threat of violence to compel me to sell my goods and services at whatever price you decree? You do not, and you know it. Thus you cannot logically or morally delegate to an agency (government) the authority to do what you have no moral or legitimate right to do yourself. Nor does the fact that two or more persons do it together change the logic or morality of the act in any way.
The fact remains, however, that our government does enforce maximum prices and minimum wages. Where does it get the authority for those actions? Obviously, the authority cannot come legitimately from people who have no such rights in the first place. Thus the authority necessarily must come From a source above and beyond the people—a reversion to the ancient concept of government under which men stagnated and suffered and died for so many centuries.
In Defense of Liberty
Our government now protects our liberty against any person or group that would deprive us of it. And the line of authority for that action by government is clearly Legitimate. You have an inherent and natural right to defend your Liberty. I have the same right. So does every other person. And since each of us has the right as an individual, we also have the right collectively to delegate to government the authority to defend our liberty for us, and to charge us for the cost of doing it.
Do you individually have any right to compel me to save a portion of my earnings or to compel me to contribute to the support of persons I don’t even know? You claim no such right as an individual. Nor do I. Nor does any other person alone or as a member of a group, outside of government. Yet collectively, through the government’s social security program, we are clearly doing what no person has any legitimate or moral right to do. What is the source of government’s authority for that action? Since the source cannot logically and morally be the people, it necessarily must be some other source; and this clearly marks it as an illegitimate function of government. Since the authority for that action could not be delegated, it had to be usurped by force—another regression to the old dictatorial concept of government that has kept man in bondage of one kind or another throughout most of his history.
As a general rule, our government defends the property of each of us against any person who would deprive us of it. Clearly that is a legitimate function of government. The source of the government’s authority to defend property can be traced back to you and me. We hold that right as individuals. And we have chosen to delegate to a common police force the authority to do collectively what each of us has an inherent right to do separately. There is nothing mystical about this process; we do it because we can thereby get better protection for less money.
Is It a Proper Function?
The issue we are discussing here, however, is not the cost of government, or how efficiently it performs its functions, but merely whether or not the functions are legitimate. The questions of governmental efficiency and how best to pay for its services are certainly vital questions, and I have discussed them elsewhere. But it would be pointless here to attempt to decide how best to pay for the services of government before we decide what it is that government shall do, and why.
For example, do you as an individual claim any inherent right to use violence to compel me to join an organization of your choice? I have yet to meet any man who claims such a right outside of government. Yet the police force is used by government to enforce its laws that compel millions of us to join labor unions when we would not do so voluntarily. What is the source of government’s authority to pass and enforce such laws? Again, it cannot be the people because no person has such an inherent right. Nor is there any magic number of people combined that can turn an individual wrong into a collective right. Thus, again, the source of the authority for compulsory unionism has to be above and beyond the people, and thus it is unmistakably illegitimate and immoral.
At this point (or more likely, long before now), you may have said to yourself, “But the majority of the people voted for it, and that is the source of the authority. Doesn’t he believe in democracy?”
Some Uses for the Voting Process
My answer is clear. As a mechanical process for selecting the President of the United States or the Mayor of New York City, the democratic procedure suits me just fine. But as a process for determining right actions from wrong actions, it is totally invalid. When you get right down to it, the blind acceptance of the compulsory rule of the majority is closely akin to the age-old idea that the strong have a right to rule the weak. But I say categorically that might never makes right, whether the “might” is represented by a conquering army or by a 51 per cent voting-majority of the people.
If the majority of the people vote for slavery—as has happened many times—slavery is still wrong. Voting has nothing to do with this issue, one way or the other; slavery is wrong because no person has a moral or legitimate right as an individual to enslave another person. Even a 98 per cent vote in favor of enslaving the other 2 per cent cannot justify the action.
If anything, the fact that the majority freely votes for an immoral and illegitimate action makes it all the worse. We could and would fight any tyrant who attempted to impose his ideas and viewpoints upon us. But democratic majorities cannot be opposed in that fashion; they can only be pleaded with. And quite frankly, I am here pleading. Let us not destroy the process of rational thought by the mere repetition of a word that is increasingly taking on the qualities of a magic cure-all. Let us not use our hard-won franchise as a sort of childish plaything to vote for mere whims. But let us use our vote to prevent any individual or group from ever again telling peaceful persons what they must and must not do. Any other use of the franchise will ultimately destroy it as a means for the practice of freedom.
Democracy is an excellent mechanical method for selecting the officials who will administer the powers we delegate to government. I can think of no better nor more logical way to do it. But this purely mechanical process can never determine the rightness or wrongness of our actions in delegating the powers in the first place. And that is the only issue I am here discussing. For example, if a majority vote really could determine right from wrong, we could easily solve all the religious problems now before us—by having a national election to determine which particular religion we should all be compelled to follow.
Most certainly, you would consider the democratic process to be an improper method for determining that issue. For the same logical and moral reasons, you also should reject it as the way to determine right and wrong in any other area. Moral issues can never be settled by a show of hands. As proof of that fact, observe the actions of the person who has thereby been deprived of his natural and inherent right to his liberty or property. In one way or another, he always continues to disrupt the arrangement by his instinctive reactions as a self-controlling human being.
Legality versus Morality
Now I am fully aware that, in the United States today, the vote of the majority determines what is legal and illegal. And I am not advocating any change in that mechanical process. But I will never agree that legalities determine moralities. As a minor but clear example of the disastrous tendency of the American people to confuse legalities and moralities—that is, to confuse majority votes with correct actions—take the issue of drinking intoxicating liquors.
The “prohibition amendment” to our Constitution did not make the drinking of whiskey immoral; it merely made it illegal. Nor did the repeal of that amendment make the drinking of whiskey moral; it merely made it legal again. The use of alcohol is a moral and medical and economic question, and thus its rightness or wrongness can never be determined by the vote of the majority.
But the confusion on this issue is so great today that we need only make a thing legal to give it moral standing among the vast majority of the people. And you, yourself, are probably included in that majority. If you doubt it, try this test on yourself: How do you determine a right action by government from a wrong action by government? Can you, without using the concept of majority vote, write out an answer that satisfies you? If you can, I will apologize. And I will happily include you among the increasing number of Americans who are seeking a basis for collective governmental action that is more permanent and fundamental than the passing whims and passions of imperfect people—whims and passions that are too often inflamed by demagogues who are themselves less perfect than the people they wish to lead.
Personally, I am convinced that the solution is to be found in the original American concept that all rights begin and end with individuals; that every person has an inherent right to his life, liberty, and property; that he may exercise his rights fully, so long as he does not violate the equal rights of others; that we may delegate the defense of these rights to our government; that any action that is illegitimate for persons is automatically illegitimate for government; and that we should never regard government as any more sacred than any other useful organization that provides us with specialized services we want at prices we are willing to pay.
Now I am well aware that the acceptance of this concept of inherent rights and governmental actions would present us with a number of monumental problems. Even so, that is still a mere detail if the principle is correct. But, of course, if the principle is wrong—that is, if there are no individual rights outside of governmental grants—then we have no problems at all. For then there is no need for us, as individuals, to think and to make hard decisions. If the ancient concept of government is the correct one, then we need only to remain passive, to obey, and to worship—for under that old-but still-popular idea, the source of governmental authority is above and beyond the individual person, and thus there is nothing you and I can do about it.
I am convinced, however, that you will not accept that ancient concept of government, even under a new name. Fortunately, you can still do a great deal to help reverse the current trend in the United States toward more governmental controls over the peaceful activities of men, if you want to. But first, you must study the question, understand it, and learn how to explain it convincingly to any other interested person. In due course, you can also find and vote for persons who understand that might never makes right, even when the “might” is authorized by a majority vote.
Since you are unavoidably a self-controlling human being, the issue rests entirely with you, as it should.
Dr. Dean Russell was a longtime member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education and Director of the FEE School of Political Economy, and the author of several books including “Frederic Bastiat: Ideas and Influence.” This article was first published in the March 193 edition of The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty.
Used with the permission of The Foundation for Economics in Education.