The concept of inalienable rights (and its application in society and government) is often misunderstood and misused. This is especially true of the right to liberty. Some argue that more liberty is always better and that the government does not have the right to tell people what they can and cannot do in private. They associate the liberty to do various things (such as partake of drugs, prostitution, etc.) with the right to liberty and claim that government is infringing on their rights in making such things illegal. But that shows a misunderstanding of the right to liberty.
The right to liberty is a right to be free in one's person and to freely dispose of one's time as one sees fit as long as one does not trample on the inalienable rights of another person. On the other hand, individual liberties are possible free choices that a person can make. These individual choices are not inalienable rights, but are alienable rights that can be given up.
This difference between the right to liberty and individual liberties is the same as that between the right to own property and the right to a particular property. Remember that every person has the right to own property, which is an inalienable right. This right comes directly from our right to our own labor (which results from our right to liberty). However, the right to use a particular piece of property is an alienable right that can be sold, given away, or traded. In the same way, the right to liberty is inalienable, but individual liberties are alienable rights.
In society, a person voluntarily gives up some individual liberties in order to belong to the society. A person on a deserted island all alone has more individual liberty than a person in society because the person who lives around other people must take into account the rights of those around him. The more people around a person, the more their liberties will be curtailed. This is an inescapable fact. This is seen, for instance, when my right to shoot a gun in any direction I please must be tempered by the fact that people are standing around and I must not harm them. The more people there are around, the more my choice of which direction to shoot will be limited. Similarly, I give up my right to drive a car at 100 miles an hour in order not to endanger those around me. I should not trash my own house and yard so that I do not devalue the property of those living in my neighborhood. Living in society means that I cannot always do as I please with myself or even with my own property because my actions affect others.
Since people often do not understand (or do not care about) the consequences of their actions on others, laws are used to make illegal those behaviors that society has determined are detrimental to others. Again, these laws must never violate the inalienable rights of any person, but they may put limitations on alienable rights. It is for this reason, for instance, that governments can tax people (taking away an alienable right to a specific property such as a sum of money). Actually, this taxation occurs when we the people voluntarily levy taxes on ourselves (via our representatives in government) – otherwise, taxation would violate our inalienable right to the private ownership of property.
So liberty, as an inalienable right, is not only good for society, but a necessity. However, all societies must necessarily limit some individual liberties. The question, of course, is what individual liberties should be limited and how.
In some cases, the way that a person’s actions impact others is not direct and obvious. A society made up of many people is complex. Actions may have indirect effects that make them seem at first glance to harm no one, when they do in fact violate someone’s rights. That is why we vote and why lawmakers debate on what is best for society. No society gets the balance perfect between individual liberties and the good of society. However, the United States does better than most (mainly because our founding documents took special care to limit government and to protect inalienable rights).
Unfortunately, many people do not understand inalienable rights or individual liberties (including lawmakers) and thus laws are often made that are not good. However, society has the right to choose (through a government that makes and enforces laws) which behaviors will be permissible within that society as long as no inalienable rights of any person are violated. A government that routinely violates inalienable rights is an invalid or illegitimate government and may rightfully be abolished and replaced by its people. (This is the justification for the Revolutionary War, for example.)
In order for a government to rightfully make laws for the people that limit their individual liberties, the laws must be made by the people. In other words, the people must voluntarily give up those individual liberties by agreeing to the laws. If a government can take away a person’s individual liberties without that person’s consent, then it has prevented him from choosing for himself what he will do, thus violating his inalienable right to liberty. However, when laws are made by representatives of the people, the people have chosen the laws, and thus individual liberties are given up voluntarily by the people.
One important thing to note is that each person need not consciously agree with every law. As long as each person has the ability to make their choice known in government (through voting, contacting representatives, lobbying, etc), and so long as the lawmakers are accountable to them under threat of recall, they have been represented in making the law. Also, a person’s continued presence in society gives their implicit consent to its laws. So, for example, while I may not consciously wish to pay taxes, I have voluntarily agreed to do so because I have chosen, through my representatives, to make this the law and have chosen to remain in society. Thus government has not violated my inalienable rights by taxing me.
Again, we are talking here of giving up individual liberties voluntarily, not of making laws that violate inalienable rights. Even if all the people agree to laws that violate inalienable rights, such laws are still wrong, and such government is illegitimate. This ability to voluntarily give up individual liberties through laws passed by our representatives in government applies only to alienable rights. Inalienable rights cannot rightfully be given up by anyone for any reason and thus cannot ever be rightfully violated by government.
Stay tuned for more of the inalienable rights series. In Part 4, I discuss the way that government obtains its just powers by the consent of the governed.
Questions for further discussion:
1. List 3 or more individual liberties that may be given up in order to belong to society. Would these individual liberties violate the inalienable rights of others if not given up? If so, which inalienable rights would be violated and how?
2. The justification for the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War was that the British king had violated the inalienable rights of the colonists and, thus, was no longer fit to rule over them. Read the list of “abuses and usurpations” in the Declaration of Independence. How do each of these violate inalienable rights?
3. Are there any current laws in this country that violate inalienable rights?
The Inalienable Rights Series
Part 1: What are Inalienable Rights?
Part 2: The Source of Inalienable Rights
Part 3: Liberty in Society and Government
Part 4: Government by Consent of the Governed
Part 5: Some Common Misconceptions