Suppose your city were on fire, buildings were ablaze, people were stuck in the buildings, and time was running out. And suppose the firefighters got busy—not manning fire trucks, fire hoses, and ladders—but inconclusively debating whether such tools exist. This, in effect, is what libertarians are doing as the Land of Liberty burns.

Over at the website of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), for instance, libertarians are currently debating whether natural rights exist and conducting a poll on the matter. The content of the debate is noteworthy.

On the “natural rights exist” side, Tibor Machan puts forth the same baseless assertion that rights-deniers have been mocking for ages: the utterly insufficient claim that rights come from human nature. “Governments do not create rights,” Machan asserts; “we have them, instead, by virtue of our human nature.”

What does that mean? How exactly does human nature render us in possession of rights? Are the rights inside of us? If so, where? If not, how exactly do we have them? Are they ideas? If so, how do we know whether the ideas are true or false? Do the ideas have referents in reality? If so, what are the referents?

Machan does not address any such questions. He merely says that “human nature does exist and, based on what we know of it (and a few other evident matters), we can reach the conclusion that all human beings have certain rights.” Although Machan uses many more words in the debate, that is the essence of his case for the existence of natural rights.

Unsurprisingly, the debater on the “natural rights don’t exist” side, Brad Taylor, easily shoots down such floating abstractions. Taylor begins:

The doctrine of natural rights seems like a good deal for libertarians. If individuals have intrinsic and inviolable rights to their person and property, we can avoid the messiness of consequentialist reasoning and confidently claim that freedom is the objectively correct answer, regardless of any cultural context or government decree.

But natural rights are incapable of doing the philosophical work expected of them. The argument for such rights is weak, their consistent application would seriously undermine the market order, and a more robust case for freedom can be made on other grounds.

To put things bluntly: Natural rights theory is wrong, useless, and unnecessary.

What, according to Taylor, is right, useful, and necessary? What is to be the governing principle of civilized society? What is the robust, non-natural-rights case for freedom? Taylor doesn’t say. But he does elaborate on his claim that the consistent application of rights “would seriously undermine the market order”:

There may be no objective way to determine whether a policy that increases wealth at the expense of liberty is desirable . . . but we can objectively say that an institution that makes us rich and free is better than one that makes us unfree and poor.

Why can we “objectively” say this? What observation-based, demonstrable facts support the idea that “an institution that makes us rich and free is better than one that makes us unfree and poor”? Again, Taylor doesn’t say. Instead, he proceeds to give examples purporting to show that if we did have natural, absolute, inalienable rights, human life in a social context would be impossible:

Suppose that smoke from a nearby factory creates a mildly unpleasant odor in my backyard and reduces my enjoyment of my property. Reasonable people would chalk this up to the unavoidable costs of sharing a planet, but consistent natural rights libertarians must treat involuntary pollution—no matter how mild—as impermissible.

Taylor adds that if rights really were absolute and inalienable, then, “Driving a car, running a factory, or flying a plane without the permission of every individual potentially affected by the resulting noise and fumes would be a crime.” In essence, Taylor argues, people don’t have absolute, inalienable rights, and, if they did, industrial society would collapse.

The alternative offered in this FEE debate is essentially this: “Humans have natural rights because we have a nature” versus “We don’t have such rights and it’s a good thing, too, because if we did, we couldn’t live in a social setting.”

Presenting such an alternative advances neither people’s understanding of rights nor the cause of liberty.

This debate is an instance of a problem I discuss at some length in “Libertarianism vs. Radical Capitalism.” Because libertarians ignore or deny the moral and philosophic ideas that underlie and support the principle of rights—because they sever the principle from the facts that give rise to it—they don’t actually know where rights come from, what rights are, or what rights mean in practice.

What if, instead of asserting that rights are based on human nature (as if that were a sufficient argument)—or asserting that rights are useless, baseless, contextless abstractions (as if that could advance liberty)—advocates of liberty were to induce the principle of rights from observations of the requirements of human life (as Ayn Rand did)? Then, they would not only understand the source of rights; they would also understand the purpose of rights: the deeper underlying principle that governs both the formation of rights and all applications thereof.

The purpose of rights is not to hermetically separate people from each other so that they cannot hear, or smell, or otherwise perceive each other’s activities. The purpose of rights is to leave people free from physical force (including fraud, extortion, etc.) so that they can act and interact on their own judgment for their own sake—so that they can live and prosper in a social context. Rights do this by morally prohibiting the initiation of physical force—and by rationally recognizing (not ignoring) the realities of human coexistence.

The fact that you can hear a car drive by your house or that you can smell the exhaust from a factory down the street does not, under normal circumstances, violate your rights. Of course, if the decibels or fumes reach a demonstrably harmful level, that is another matter; that is the kind of force that the principle of rights is intended to prohibit. If libertarians understood the source and nature of rights, they would understand this. But to understand the source and nature of rights, one cannot treat rights as inexplicably “natural” or “based on human nature, we know not how.” Rather, one must ask and answer questions such as: What facts give rise to the need of rights? What undergirds these principles and anchors them in perceptual reality? One must use reason, observation, and logic to ground rights in moral truth and, ultimately, in facts we can see.

Why do libertarians shy away from the objective foundation of rights? I suspect that in many cases they do so because they are uncomfortable with the controversy of that foundation.

The principle of rights is logically an expression of the principle of egoism: the moral truth that each person should act in his best interest and is the proper beneficiary of his productive actions. Rights exist precisely to ban physical force from social relationships and thus to enable people to act on their own judgment for their own sake—which means: Rights exist to enable people to be selfish. Rights morally sanction the very kind of action that religious ethics has for twenty-five hundred years condemned as evil: selfish action—action taken by the individual to sustain his own life and achieve his own happiness.

The reason many people refuse to recognize and embrace the objective foundation for rights is that that foundation is the morality of egoism (as against altruism) and the philosophy of reason (as against faith). Being for egoism and reason—and thus against altruism and faith—in today’s world is controversial and can cause people to scoff.

But here’s the thing: Egoism and reason are requirements of human life. They are, in fact, the fundamental requirements of human life. If we do not look at reality, use logic, and act in a self-interested manner, we cannot live and prosper. There is no getting around these truths, and—setting aside the pseudo reason of “But people don’t like rational egoists”—there is no reason to try getting around them. Truths are not our enemies but our friends. We need to know the truth and act in accordance with it so that we can live successfully, achieve our goals, and protect our rights in the realm of truth: reality.

Rational people don’t decide what to believe by asking, “What do others believe?” or “What will others think of me if I recognize this fact?” Rational people use their minds to figure out what is true; they embrace the truths they discover; and they do so regardless of what others believe or think or say or do.

If we want to defend rights—and thus liberty—we must embrace the morality of egoism and the philosophy of reason.

That said, advocates of liberty don’t have to undergird rights. They don’t have to make sense or be coherent in their advocacy of liberty. Nothing in the fabric of the universe mandates that people’s political assertions must be supported by observation and logic. Going by reason is a choice. Libertarians can continue the practice of merely asserting (or denying) the existence of rights and see what comes of it. They can’t successfully defend liberty that way. But they are free to fiddle while Rome burns. That, too, is a choice.

Fortunately, in the age of the Internet, everyone’s choice on the matter is being recorded in the ether for eternity. This fact cannot save us from the consequences of mass evasion (if that choice prevails), but it does provide some consolation. Not only can everyone today see who is choosing to recognize and embrace the objective foundation of liberty and who is choosing to ignore or deny it; all future generations will be able to see what everyone today did, too.

What will your children and grandchildren find when they look up your choice?

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