People often think of government as an entity that is above them – something that makes rules about what they can and cannot do and will punish them if they disobey. However, this is an incorrect view of just government.
The Declaration of Independence states:
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.
When John Locke wrote his Two Treatises of Government in the 17th century, the prevailing concept of government was known as the “divine right of kings.” This idea stated that kings were divinely appointed, being given power over their subjects by God, and that subjects were thus morally obligated to obey every command of their rulers. In contrast, John Locke and his contemporaries developed the idea of every person as equal and independent, each subject to natural law (universal principles such as inalienable rights), but not subject to each other. If people are all equal and independent, each one is then a sovereign, having control of his own choices and destiny and subject only to God. No person is higher than any other, and no one has the right to violate the rights of any person by forcing him to subject himself to another’s decrees. This idea of the people – rather than the king – as sovereign is the foundation for representative government.
In a representative government such as we have in the United States, it is recognized that the power belongs to the people. The people delegate their power to government in order to form an orderly and safe society where their rights are protected. Without government, a person has rights, but the protection of those rights is his own responsibility. So, for example, while I have the right to liberty, without government I must personally defend myself against all who would threaten to enslave me. In the same way, I must also protect my own life and property. Many people are not capable of protecting themselves in this way and may therefore hire another person to act for them. Governments are simply an application of this principle. People form governments to protect their rights through the formation and enforcement of laws. The people delegate their authority to the government, which then acts on behalf of the people. Government has no power that did not first reside with the people. Government workers, from senators to police officers to garbage collectors, are those hired to do what each individual person has the right to do, but may not have the skills to do himself. This is why government workers are often called public servants. They work for the people. This is even true of our President. The President is not royalty, but is simply a citizen that has been chosen to do the job of representing the people and enforcing the laws of the land. Such representatives in government don’t have a special status or have more rights than other people. They are simply proxies for the people, doing on their behalf what they have a right to do for themselves.
An important thing to note here is that no person has the right to violate the inalienable rights of any person (including himself), and therefore government cannot rightfully violate inalienable rights either. Since inalienable rights cannot be given up or transferred for any reason, there is no way for government to be given power over inalienable rights by the people.
Another very important thing to note is that delegating power to government does not take away the right of the people to do things for themselves. For example, while police officers are hired to protect me from those who would hurt me or take away my property, I still have the right to defend myself and my property. I didn’t give that right away; I simply hired someone to act on my behalf. I also don’t have to wait for a police officer to arrest someone who is breaking the law. The concept of a citizen’s arrest is due to the fact that every person has the right to arrest a criminal. Police officers do it most often because they are trained and hired to enforce the law, not because they have any more rights than anyone else. In the same way, the other valid powers of government are derived from the rights of the individual people and only become valid powers of government by the consent of the people (who retain those rights). This is what it means to be a government of the people, for the people, and by the people.
In Part 5, I will wrap up the inalienable rights series by discussing some common misconceptions about inalienable rights.
Questions for further discussion:
1. List 3 or more types of government workers. How do each of these derive their power from the people? Or, in other words, what does their power imply about the rights that the people have?
2. What happens when people have an incorrect view of government and attempt to give power to government that is not rightful power? Or what happens when government tries to take power that has not been voluntarily granted by the people? Are there any examples of such governmental power grabs or mistaken assignment of power to government?
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