The Declaration of Independence affirms and clarifies the origin of our individual rights. Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s primary author, wrote that we “are endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Thus, these rights – amongst which are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – both precede any instituted government, and supercede whatever laws it may pass in violation of them.
More than a mere game of semantics, understanding the source of our rights is paramount to understanding what government may legitimately do. Do we enjoy our liberty at the good graces of government, or does the government only exist to protect our pre-existing rights? The answer to this, while thankfully obvious to some, has significant implications for everything the government does (supposedly) in our name.
The main purpose of individuals establishing governments, as the philosopher John Locke observed, “is the preservation of their property.” Prior to any government, individuals have the moral authority to repel any aggressor, and protect their lives, liberties, and property from attack. This individual authority can therefore be delegated to an organization, such as a government, whose officers can defend the individuals within that organization.
To be legitimate, then, any government action must be predicated upon an individual right which has been properly delegated to that government. Military and police powers become easily reconciled, as they are based upon the individual right to self-defense. But so much of what government does falls outside this narrow scope.
Does an individual have an inherent right to take money from his neighbor to keep his business afloat? He does not, and therefore government bailouts of private business have no moral justification. Does an individual have an inherent right to use violence against his neighbor for growing and consuming a marijuana plant? He does not, and therefore the war on drugs has no moral justification. Does an individual have an inherent right to compel his neighbors to help fund his child’s education, and his aging mother’s health care needs? He does not, and therefore government education and welfare programs likewise have no moral justification.
The pattern is clear, and becomes quite useful to analyze whether any government action is morally valid. One must simply ask: would I be justified in doing this to my neighbor tomorrow, if the government were to be dissolved today?
Supporters of illegitimate government authority claim that there exists some “social contract” which justifies government powers that the individuals who comprise it do not possess – a contract which has never been signed, nor its terms even disclosed! Some also believe that because a majority of voters approve the powers, they become valid. This wrongly supposes that a majority of neighbors can decide that their immoral actions upon the dissenting minority become magically moral by their simply having said so.
The French economist and philosopher Frédéric Bastiat rightly said that “if the very purpose of law is the protection of individual rights, then law may not be used... to accomplish what individuals have no right to do.” While it’s easy to point to low-hanging, corrupt fruit on the tree of government, it’s time to pull up the roots and realize how diseased the entire tree has become.
Connor Boyack is the director of the Utah Tenth Amendment Center and author of Latter-day Liberty: A Gospel Approach to Government and Politics. He blogs at www.connorboyack.com, is a frequent guest on radio shows, and regularly publishes opinion pieces in a variety of newspapers and websites. A California native and Brigham Young University graduate, Connor currently resides in Lehi, Utah, with his wife and two children.