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. . . .
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