An Assertion of Right





Purchase the softcover


HOME

The enormous expense of Governments has provoked people to think, by making them feel;
and when once the veil begins to rend, it admits not of repair.
Rights of Man, Thomas Paine, 1791


Introduction

"Ignorance is of a peculiar nature: and once dispelled, it is impossible to reestablish it. It is not originally a thing of itself, but is only the absence of knowledge; and though man may be kept ignorant, he cannot be made ignorant."

Rights of Man, Thomas Paine, 1791


In Thomas Hobbes'(1588-1679)Leviathan (1651), Hobbes took his observations on the natural state of man...
"Nature hath made man so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind that another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable..."

...and considered the State necessary for human progress:
"...that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of war which is necessarily consequent, as has been shown, to the natural passions of men when there is no visable power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants..."

Whatever equality of creation Hobbes believed in, he also believed that man was incorrigible: always at war and always in need of something to govern him. When John Locke (1632-1704) struck pen to paper in 1689, he made the same observation Hobbes declared as a natural state of man:
"Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of Nature, equally with any other man..."

He came to a similar conclusion, government was necessary
"...and that therefore God hath certainly appointed government to restrain the partiality and violence of men. I easily grant that civil government is the proper remedy for the inconveniences of the state of Nature..."

Not just necessary and proper, but with authority forever over all...
"The power that every individual gave the society when he entered into it can never revert to the individuals again, as long as society lasts, but will always remain in the community"

The opening of the New World and the immigration of large numbers of people from the governing institutions of society started to give some evidence that man was not always at war with everyone. Humanity could work together for mutual benefit. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) published The Social Contract in 1762 seeking to:
"...examine whether, in the ordering of society, there can be any reliable and legitimate rule of administration, taking men as they are, and laws as they can be."

After much effort to establish man as the source of legitimate authority for "administration", he all but takes away man's freedom, subjugating it to the Society as controlled by the State, for their freedom and benefit of course.
"In order therefore that the social pact should not be an empty formula, it contains an implicit obligation which alone can give force to the others, that if anyone refuses to obey the general will he will be compelled to do so by the whole body; which means nothing else than that he will be forced to be free; for such is the condition which, giving each citizen to his country, guarantees that he will not depend on any person. This condition is the device that ensures the operation of the political machine."

For our own good has become the reason for all types of tyranny. Edmund Burke (1729-1797), suggested ordered liberty or was it ordered existence?
"I should, therefore, suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France until I was informed how it had been combined with government, with public force, with the discipline and obedience of armies, with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue, with morality and religion, with the solidity of property, with peace and order, with civil and social manners. All these (in their way) are good things, too, and without them liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long."

Burke, a favorite of today's conservatives, was firm in his opinions on the French Revolution and the concept of a government by the people:
"It is claimed that "...the people of England have acquired three fundamental rights, all which, with him, compose one system, and lie together in one short sentence; namely, that we have acquired a right
"To choose our own governors."
"To cashier them for misconduct."
"To frame a government for ourselves."
"This new, and hitherto unheard-of, bill of rights, though made in the name of the whole people, belongs to those gentlemen and their faction only. The body of the people of England have no share in it. They utterly disclaim it. They will resist the practical assertion of it with their lives and fortunes. They are bound to do so by the laws of their country, made at the time of that very Revolution which is appealed to in favour of the fictitious rights claimed by the Society which abuses its name."

And:
"The very idea of the fabrication of a new government is enough to fill us with disgust and horror."

Paine destroyed Burke's assertions on the benefits and necessity of rule by monarchies:
"A greater absurdity cannot present itself to the understanding of man than what Mr. Burke offers to his readers. He tells them, and he tells the world to come, that a certain body of men who existed a hundred years ago, made a law, and that there does not now exist in the Nation, nor ever will, nor ever can, a power to alter it. Under how many subtilties or absurdities has the divine right to govern been imposed on the credulity of mankind! Mr. Burke has discovered a new one, and he has shortened his journey to Rome by appealing to the power of this infallible Parliament of former days; and he produces what it has done as of divine authority, for that power must certainly be more than human which no human power to the end of time can alter."

Paine's passionate arguments in Common Sense helped to fan the flame of independence. Paine thought government necessary, but the best government was the simplest:
"Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil, in its worse state an intolerable one."

"Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz. Freedom and security."

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) of course disagreed with Burke. In the Declaration of Independence he took square aim at government and fired a devastating broadside:
"Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Government was and is the servant; the people, as sovereigns, were the masters and only the free exercise of sovereignty by the people gave government any legitimacy and authority. Fundamental rights and authority began and remained with the individual. Government and society were beneficial as long as they served the individual.

It is a natural progression from individual to family to community to society but at no point is government as an entity either natural or preordained despite the claim of Hobbes. In the far past, man was a beast and needed to be tamed. The American Revolution said no longer. Man could order his affairs. Individuals had the right to do so. Government was but a tool of society, not the pinnacle of it:
"Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them;"

Paine was wrong about one thing: society was not and is not in every state a blessing, as John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) would note in On Liberty (1859):
"Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own."

His response made clear the limits of a beneficial society (or State):
"...to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

Looking back at the writings of Hobbes, Locke, Paine, Jefferson and Mill, the thread is there to follow: man (beast that he could be) was the source of legitimate government and authorities. But history is full of examples where once some men were given the power to constrain others that they exemplified the worst base passions they were empowered to prevent. If a system of constraints could be formulated that would limit mans more base passions, without creating despots and tyrannies, the result would benefit all. Jefferson laid the foundation in the Declaration of Independence:
"That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."

Asking where rights come from suggests the notion that there is an institution, document or "Creator" standing by to anoint each child at birth with a package and stamp proclaiming 'rights holder'. Unless I missed something or my parents are holding back, I don't recall ever seeing such a package or stamp. However we come by them, it is clear that Jefferson believed rights were an inherent part of our existence.

Is there some point or process whereby their existence becomes inherent, some mechanism we can determine, rather than rely on a statement on a historical document that is certainly the product of our less knowledgeable past?

The world and society were slowly evolving 230 years ago, a process that has sped up considerably in the last 50 years. It is time to revisit the questions and some of the observations. In his introduction to Common Sense, Thomas Paine offered more hope for his point of view than I do mine:
"Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason."
In Part One, my goal is to offer a definition of rights, state an explicit origin and establish their limitations. In Part Two, I look at how rights serve as a foundation for governments management of rights and in Part Three I discuss some of the issues and considerations.

The rest of the book...well, hit the PURCHASE button!