Really Natural Rights

What is a government? Is it simply the organization that has the might to control a geographical area? Does might make right? If so, is it moral to violently overthrow a government as long as you have sufficient might to do so? If not, is one obligated to obey a government even if is made of up a bunch of ruthless thugs?

There have been times and places in history where the “might makes right” school of legitimacy has prevailed, but in most times and places governments have claimed a moral justification for their use of force. Such justifications do help avoid the ugliness of perpetual civil war, and sometimes such justifications have also provided some checks on what the governors could do to the people with their monopolies on might.

However, many of these justifications were based on questionable traditions, and even within these traditions, the kings of old often had to stretch truths to claim legitimacy. And for modern thinkers who found the traditions in question to be barbarous relics, it became difficult to justify the often brutal actions of governments – actions that would be considered criminal if carried out by private citizens.

But to simply overthrow brutal governments without a new moral framework would be to sink back into the barbarous state of feuding warlords. So during the Enlightenment, philosophers came up with theories of “natural rights.” Such theories were enshrined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the resulting government has worked rather well, albeit imperfectly. Many other revolutions, such as the French and Russian Revolutions, which were not grounded on these same principles, resulted in brutal regimes that were even more unpleasant than the autocratic regimes they replaced.

Despite the good record of governments grounded in natural rights theory, there are many people to this day who would deprecate such rights for reasons of security (the Bill of Rights is inconvenient to law enforcement) or the ability to have unlimited social programs (the strictly enumerated powers of Congress rule out well over half of what the federal government is currently doing) or central planning (the 5th Amendment gets in the way of unbridled takings).

Purist libertarians argue that the only legitimate reason for governments to tax or perform any other action prohibited to private citizens is to allow the protection of natural rights; otherwise taxation is simply theft writ large. Indeed, the more radical libertarians would argue that even the small amount of taxation needed for law enforcement and military defense is theft, that government should be funded on a purely voluntary basis. More “moderate” libertarians point out that without government running the military and courts, there would be more natural rights violations than the government has to commit to fund itself, so on the net such limited taxation is not theft. But neither brand of libertarian can find a natural rights rationale for state run welfare systems or parks, and thus the split between libertarians and those who would use the might of the state for “good causes.”

Many on the Left claim to espouse a different theory to determine whether a government is legitimate: whether a government follows the “will of the people.” Generally, this means more democracy. So, if The People vote to ban billboards or to nationalize the oil companies, it is morally correct to do so as long as a proper vote is taken.

However, there are serious theoretical problems to this approach. If two rapists are alone with a beautiful woman, is it moral for them to carry out their deed as long as they vote first? If a small town inhabited by white people vote that a (living) negro cannot be in town after sunset, is this morally acceptable? If the people of a state overwhelmingly vote to establish a state religion, do they have the right to tax non-members of said religion to build cathedrals? What is the difference between a democratic government and a lynch mob?

Indeed, many of these same Leftists who claim to espouse democracy drop back into natural rights arguments when their opposition gets into power and proceeds to violate certain portions of the Bill of Rights.

So, is freedom an all or nothing proposition? Are we left with the stark choice between unbridled “robber baron” capitalism and environmental devastation on the one hand, or a slippery slope towards dictatorship and labor camps on the other? Or, can we modify existing theories of natural rights to accommodate the main concerns of progressives and environmentalists?