Are There Limits to Natural Rights?

I have been thinking about natural rights and their relation to political theory. Now, I have for quite a while now been in favor of a natural rights based approach, but lately have been questioning how viable it truly is. Most natural rights political theory begins with some form of the Non Aggression Principle, which according to Wikipedia is “… a moral stance which asserts that aggression is inherently illegitimate.”. Now that certainly sounds like a good starting point to me, but does it tell the whole story? Wikipedia goes further:

NAP and property rights are closely linked, since what aggression is depends on what a person’s rights are.[1] Aggression, for the purposes of NAP, is defined as the initiation or threatening of violence against a person or legitimately-owned property of another. Specifically, any unsolicited actions of others that physically affect an individual’s property or person, no matter if the result of those actions is damaging, beneficial, or neutral to the owner, are considered violent or aggressive when they are against the owner’s free will and interfere with his right to self-determination and the principle of self-ownership.

There are several problems that I have currently. One, strict adherence to the NAP would necessarily lead to anarchism, since taxation is a function of the state, and is inherently coercive, thereby violating the NAP (Also, notice how a definition of property rights is presupposed in the NAP, at least as presented here. The definition is taken for granted while using it to support the very thing in question!). Now, I see no reason to dismiss anarchism prima facie, but it could be a tough pill to swallow for some, and intuitively I think most people are inclined (whether rightly or not) to dismiss it. However, I myself am not an anarchist; I do believe a minimal state is necessary to secure individual’s rights. In any case, the supporter of a minimal state now finds his or her self at odds with the common natural rights approach.

Is there a way natural rights can be reconciled with a state? I read an argument, presented by Mark Friedman, which goes as follows:

Quite clearly, deterring or preempting foreign attacks and international terrorism promotes rational agency in a way the basic scientific research does not…Therefore, the coercion of rational agents to support national defense is an exception to Nozickian side constraints because it can be justified in terms of the very value, rational agency, which generates those constraints.

At first I found this argument rather compelling, but of late have questioned it. If rights truly are an inherent part of being human, and are universal across a myriad of cultures and times, then why is a state necessary to secure them? It seems as though the state must exist prior to those rights if they are to be secured through the state. In the absence of a state, can individuals truly be said to have intrinsic rights if they are unable to effectively secure them? (It is at this point that anarcho-capitalists will chide me for thinking a state is required to protect rights. For reasons I don’t care to get into at the moment, I do not agree with them, though I’m sympathetic to their commitment to non-coercion.) It is true that individuals would be free to contract with others to provide them with protection services, but this leads to the “free-rider” problem: Would enough people contract with a particular agency in order to effectively provide security for a given area? I think it is likely that they would not, perhaps not seeing any immediate threats to their rights that would prompt them to want to. But the free-rider argument is itself a consequentialist one. What place does that have in a system of natural rights?

To me this is a significant problem. Can we really just pick and choose what types of arguments we want to use in any given moment, even if they are at times contradictory? It may work well in your average internet political battles, but hardly would withstand scrutiny enough to be considered a consistent political theory.

I am naturally disinclined towards consequentialism. At the root of it, I feel as though there is nothing in the way of an ever increasing leviathan of a government, that there is no universal framework with which to point to when government goes too far. However, I am coming to grips with the idea that I may be wrong; after all, people can just as easily reject the whole idea of natural rights, and either way it is a battle for liberty. There may not be, in fact, any universal framework at all, but only individual’s subjective thoughts, feelings, and opinions on certain matters. If another individual doesn’t feel as though I have a right to something, then I can’t expect my right to be respected by them, can I? In aggregate, this can mean that by default I do not have a right after all, even if I feel as though I should. It might be nice to appeal to natural rights in such a case, however if we still must at times appeal to consequentialist arguments, why hold to natural rights at all?

I still would like to see natural rights saved, if you will. I’m open to hearing arguments for and against, but more and more I’m leaning towards consequentialism.


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2 responses to “Are There Limits to Natural Rights?”

  1. necessaryandpropergovt says :

    You said: “I do believe a minimal state is necessary to secure individual’s rights.”

    I agree, though you are perhaps more of a minimalist than me. Anyway, as you know, the difficulty is in KEEPING the state sized correctly, against its tendency to start bloating. Have you read Federalist #51? Here’s a quote from James Madison:

    But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

    Although I haven’t bought it yet, I’ve heard Mark Levin talking in detail about his new book “The Liberty Amendments.” In it, he suggests a set of 11 amendments to the U.S. Constitution that would have the effect of restoring the long-lost original intent of the Founders. One of the amendments would require EVERY agency of the executive branch to be abolished every 3 years, and have to rejustify itself back into existence and into the federal budget. No grandfathering or long-term lifespan allowed for any agency, unless it is positively re-asserted every 3 years by the legislature. Whaddya think of that?

    – Jeff

    • The Existential Christian says :

      Madison is spot on; how can we expect government to restrain itself? I wrote this post before the revelations about the NSA spying, and I was taken aback by that a bit. Not to say that i was surprised, but by how massive of a project it actually is. It does make me wonder if the corrosiveness of government is impossible to control, and from time to time to must simply be re-created.

      While I like the idea of that amendment, I can also see Congress just putting through blanket legislation to reaffirm most agencies. Perhaps the amendment as stated in the book addresses that, however. It does remind me of Thomas Jefferson:

      Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of nineteen years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right. It may be said, that the succeeding generation exercising, in fact, the power of repeal, this leaves them as free as if the constitution or law had been expressly limited to nineteen years only. In the first place, this objection admits the right, in proposing an equivalent. But the power of repeal is not an equivalent. It might be, indeed, if every form of government were so perfectly contrived, that the will of the majority could always be obtained, fairly and without impediment. But this is true of no form. The people cannot assemble themselves; their representation is unequal and vicious. Various checks are opposed to every legislative proposition. Factions get possession of the public councils, bribery corrupts them, personal interests lead them astray from the general interests of their constituents; and other impediments arise, so as to prove to every practical man, that a law of limited duration is much more manageable than one which needs a repeal.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:459, Papers 15:396

      What I would like to see more than anything is the elimination of cabinet level agencies. As it stands right now, the President has become a pseudo-monarch, and can (and does) create agencies with little to no congressional oversight. That, to me, is wrong. Agencies like the EPA and Department of Education get to write legislation that could completely contradict the will of the people, as expressed by their representatives, and there is nothing they can do about it, other than vote for a different president. I believe that is one of the biggest problems in our federal government today.

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