The Individual is Sovereign

We the People

of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity do ordain and establish the Constitution for the United States of America.

On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill
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. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise.

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

What is a right? Where do rights come from, if they come from anywhere? Are rights a legal fabrication or just acquiescence by others to do what we want established by society or tradition? For Jefferson and many others, the Creator is the only source of rights.

The phrase 'among these' suggests that 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' are just a subset of rights. Are all rights equal or of the same nature? How many rights exist? How many different types of rights exist? The subset offered by Jefferson suggests at least two different types of rights. Life is not aspirational, life either exists or does not and individuals have an infinite set of choices to attempt to pursue or aspire to, happiness.

If God endows individuals with rights, is there a mechanism? Is there a process how and when rights attach or are bestowed? If someone says God brought rain to a drought stricken area, we know the rain came by way of a mechanism we understand scientifically quite well.

The Bible explains how God brought life into an individual:

Genesis 2:7
- then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.

In May 2008, during an online debate, I stated the 'endowed by their Creator' origin of rights said nothing of their origin or extent. I stated that we were born with rights, that they were inherent in our existence; which in many ways is no better than 'by their Creator'. I was challenged to state where rights originated, what rights were 'correct' and which were no more than the ranting of a lunatic or the justification of a tyrant. Let me introduce you to my debate antagonist:

You are going to have to answer the question of where our rights originate before this discussion can go anywhere. Just saying that we have them isn't an explanation, but the absence of an explanation.

The challenge with relying on "rights" as defined by metaphysics is that NOBODY really agrees what those rights are. So to speak in terms of "rights" and demanding your "rights" in a specific context is not really helpful to your argument.

The challenge galvanized me into spending time and considerably more effort into going beyond 'inherent in our existence' and into giving my positions substance. I established a couple premises. First, the individual is sovereign. We are the masters of ourselves. Our personal actions and needs are our responsibility. We can not transfer that responsibility to others, we can not avoid the consequences of our actions. Even slaves still have absolute control over their own thoughts and physical actions. Nothing can change or allow us to abdicate that status.

Second, all rights are inherent in us. Rights exist because we exist. The foundation of rights can be found in each of us. Each of us has the need to breath, eat, drink, sleep; fulfilling those needs require us to act in specific ways that if interfered with could prevent our continued existence. If we are sovereign, we are responsible first to our selves and our needs. To honestly take up the challenge, I was going to have to find support for these premises AND where they led me. It took a year to find my starting point.

My principles:

First: I believe that rights are inherent in each human's existence.
Second: I acknowledge tradition without codifying rituals.
Third: I am guided by personal responsibility.
Fourth: I choose choice.
Fifth: I am imperfect, freedom is messy.
Sixth: I am persuaded that freedom and prosperity are linked.
Seventh: I perceive the need for prudent restraints upon power.
Eighth: I understand that change happens in a prosperous society.
Ninth: I am part of a diverse society

First: I believe that rights are inherent in our existence.

In the absence of society or others, an individual's rights are limited only by their imagination, ability and the available resources. Those rights do not end, or cease to exist because a second person is present. A society that establishes the boundaries between individuals on the basis of inherent rights imposes upon itself a limit to the extent it may interfere in the free expression of those individual rights. Our Founding Fathers sought not to limit individuals, but the government powers that could be called upon by society to limit, infringe or deny the individual's rights. The specific acknowledgment that government derives its power from the people recognizes that the source of power and rights resides within the individual.
"The principles on which we engaged, of which the charter of our independence is the record, were sanctioned by the laws of our being, and we but obeyed them in pursuing undeviatingly the course they called for. It issued finally in that inestimable state of freedom which alone can ensure to man the enjoyment of his equal rights."
--Thomas Jefferson to Georgetown Republicans, 1809.

Second: I acknowledge tradition without codifying rituals.

When the choices are the same or similar from generation to generation, we have the ability to learn the consequences of the various choices and select those we seek. Those choices that are repeated in each generation inform our traditions and provide the continuity that binds one generation to another.
"We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of its majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country."
--Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813
"[As to] the question whether, by the laws of nature, one generation of men can, by any act of theirs, bind those which are to follow them? I say, by the laws of nature, there being between generation and generation, as between nation and nation, no other obligatory law."
--Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1814..
When the choices change from generation to generation, it is not enough to avoid making the choice, we must take the lessons we have learned from our parents and our history and apply it in novel ways, hopeful that through careful consideration, the consequences are beneficial to ourselves and our posterity.

I support the individual's choice. It is not enough to say, 'what was good enough for my father, is good enough for me'. Our parents, our ancestors, sought to improve the opportunities and choices for their children. It is a founding principle that the past failed to provide the freedom and liberties our inherent rights need to be freely expressed. We don't seek traditions because they provide stability, we seek traditions to honor the hardships our parents and their parents suffered so that we might prosper. Traditions for the sake of tradition are empty rituals, devoid of meaning, devoid of understanding.
"The Gothic idea that we were to look backwards instead of forwards for the improvement of the human mind, and to recur to the annals of our ancestors for what is most perfect in government, in religion and in learning, is worthy of those bigots in religion and government by whom it has been recommended, and whose purposes it would answer. But it is not an idea which this country will endure."
--Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 1800. ME 10:148
"I am for encouraging the progress of science in all its branches, and not for raising a hue and cry against the sacred name of philosophy; for awing the human mind by stories of raw-head and bloody bones to a distrust of its own vision, and to repose implicitly on that of others; to go backwards instead of forwards to look for improvement; to believe that government, religion, morality and every other science were in the highest perfection in the ages of the darkest ignorance, and that nothing can ever be decided more perfect than what was established by our forefathers."
--Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799.
Some additional thoughts: Society uses traditions to create structure, to define acceptable activities and limits on freedoms. I am not interested in the devil we know - such a detestable situation needs exorcism. We are interested in honoring our past, not living it.

Elementary change in society demands new customs and conventions. By all measures, our Founding Fathers broke with tradition to establish a representative democracy founded upon the rights and liberties of the individual.

When a society can be isolated from change, it does not stabilize, it stagnates. Change happens. To seek to prevent that change from impacting society is to seek a status quo. That by necessity limits personal freedoms and liberties. The society I live in is fundamentally different than that my grandparents lived in. My parents have straddled that difference and found the old so detrimental to the liberty they desired for their children that they left that former society. It is not continuity of society that makes life meaningful, it is individual freedom of choice and association that makes life meaningful.

Third: I am guided by personal responsibility.

Every action has a consequence. In many cases, it is possible to determine the consequences of an action prior to undertaking that action. Conservatives seek to understand those consequences BEFORE acting. When it is not possible to know in advance the consequences, I do not refuse to take action, but to undertake action only as necessary to further my goals. Our Founding Fathers recognized the danger of allowing government to act without understanding the consequences of its actions. The first question government MUST ask is not how much of a law must be made, but whether a law should be made at all. Each law is an infringement, a limit upon the rights of the individual. I accept the consequences of my choices. Personal responsibility is the acknowledgment that the choice an individual makes is his/hers alone.

Some additional thoughts: Stress on society is caused when change is both forced, and fought against. A child pulling on the arm of an adult will continue to pull until the connection is broken and the child falls OR the adult slowly begins to move in the direction of the child and the child needs less exertion to continue the motion. Society that stands steadfast, risks a break with it's own offspring, unless it shows a willingness to act in the direction it is being pulled. Only a cautious step forward relieves the stress. Sudden is only the realization that change can no longer be denied. The stress of change begins the day a position is taken. It builds because those supporting a particular position refuse to acknowledge that others have already moved on from that position. While some may argue that pulling a child in a different direction is an option, it is a change in direction nonetheless. The status quo, the unchanging steadfastness, is the issue that I am addressing.

Although Americans have been attached strongly to rights, they have in recent times, begun to abdicate their responsibilities. Government has been substituted, not just as a means of enforcing the boundaries of individual rights, but as the caretaker of consequences. Bad choices are forgiven. Judgment against the few has been replaced by limits on all. The consent of the governed gives way to a standardized process hostile to freedom and liberty.

Fourth: I choose choice.

I love the vast array of choices available to individuals and societies and seek to increase those choices. Limits upon the rights and liberties of others reduce the choices available. Conflicts increase when choices are limited. For a healthy diversity in any civilization, freedom of choice must be preserved. If natural and institutional choices are destroyed, bondage is the only possible outcome. 'All men are created equal'. Our society acknowledges a diversity of choices. We do not expect, nor require equality of results.

Fifth: I am imperfect, freedom is messy.

No single choice is correct for all individuals. There is no perfect choice that can be decided for everyone. Society does attempt to limit choices to those acceptable to itself but that tyranny is no different than the demands of a dictator. The range of acceptable choices is bounded only by the limits of imagination and resources. To each individual, their choice is, no matter how often repeated, unique. Each individual will act in ways that have unintended consequences. Their failure is not something to be protected against. A child that is prevented from making choices, fails to learn from their mistakes. Humans are imperfect, bad choices are made. Government, and society, can not protect us from making bad choices without limiting our freedoms.

Some additional thoughts: It has been said that all we can reasonably expect of a society based on an imperfect humanity is "one with some evils, maladjustments and suffering". Why? Why not work to eliminate evils, maladjustments and suffering? Accept them as the natural consequence of an imperfect humanity? I agree we are imperfect, but that does not give us license to ignore those imperfections. What is worse is to allow institutions WE create to result in evils, maladjustments and suffering by design. Knowing such evils exist and to do nothing but accept the imperfection is to deny our own evil.

Sixth: I am persuaded that freedom and prosperity are linked.

Limit freedom and prosperity dies. The more widespread freedom, the more stable and productive a country becomes. Freedom has been a powerful instrument for teaching responsibility and for providing mankind the ability to move beyond mere survival. The freedom to act allows individuals to explore their imagination, to make choices not made before. I acknowledge that freedom carries benefits and responsibilities; I accept those obligations cheerfully. Prosperity is a consequence of freedom. Upon the foundation of FREEDOM, great civilizations are built.

Seventh: I perceive the need for prudent restraints upon power.

Politically speaking, power is the ability to do as one likes, regardless of the wills of one's fellows. I, politically speaking, have the right to do as I like, but limit the free expression of those rights to the boundary of others. When government, either of it's own lust or at the bidding of others, limits the freedoms and rights of others, it has ceased being the servant, and assumed the mantel of master. When every person claims to be a sovereign, and behaves with both the rights and responsibilities accorded that position, society prospers. When responsibility is abdicated, the individual loses the freedom to exercise his/her rights and society fails. The conservative endeavors to balance the need for freedom, with the responsibility to limit the free expression of his/her rights. The balance is challenged in every generation. The pendulum of unfettered rights to government overstep is seldom quiet. Whether to enforce a community standard, or to remove the boundary that separates individuals, the use of government is the last attempt of a failing movement to impose one standard on everyone.

Knowing humans have the capacity for good and evil, I do not trust good intentions. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances and adequate enforcement of the laws are the means to limit GOVERNMENT abuse of power. I understand the need for government, but a just government maintains a healthy balance between the enforcement of boundaries and the claims of liberty.

I understand the desire to limit people when the free expression of their liberties and freedoms have the potential to infringe upon the liberties and freedoms of others, but that is not what is desired. Any attempt by the government to infringe upon the freedoms and liberties of the individual is suspect. First and foremost, government is our servant, not our equal and certainly not our master. Even if the master is benevolent and just, it is still a master and that is unacceptable to us - or it should be.

Our rights are inherent, they do not flow from society or government. We have the right to do whatever our desires, our imagination, and our resources allow - PROVIDED - we do not infringe, limit or harm another. Individual rights are the cornerstones on which this nation is built. To deny that, is to deny freedom.

Eighth: I understand that change happens in a prosperous society.

I am not opposed to change. Change is a fundamental characteristic of human life and all of its institutions. To oppose change is to limit freedom. Such force can not be maintained indefinitely. It is the responsibility of a civil society not to prevent change, but to assist those most affected by change to adapt. An increase in freedom of choice gives individuals opportunities to change and adapt. Without change and adaptation, a society stagnates.

Therefore I sees to balance change with freedom. The freedom to change, adapt and make new choices. I favor progress, not for progress' sake, but for the sake of freedom. Freedom of choice is limited by our imaginations, our abilities and our resources. Our liberties are limited by the boundaries of others, justly and with respect.

Some additional thoughts: Permanence doesn't exist and to attempt to force it is to deny change both as individuals and as a society. The biology of humanity will not change much over the centuries, but just about everything else will, with or without an effort to do so. Institutions are not needed to enforce those things that do not change. You don't need an institution to promote procreation. And, an institution designed to promote change in something that cannot change will fail, but only after significant damage is done - one child rule in China is ample evidence. Institutions are often created to prevent change, or to establish a specific order to change. Such an institution is built upon shifting sands. The more it attempts to control the change, the more the sand shifts under its foundations.

Ninth: I am part of a diverse society

The individual is sovereign, but not isolated. Many members of society will make different choices, have different abilities and resources. When others make different choices, I celebrate those liberties; as long as those choices do not harm another. In participating in society, I recognize the sovereignty of others, and I do not attempt to limit their liberties and choices. Government enforcement is the last resort, and then only to protect freedom and liberty, not to limit or deny it.

The sovereign individual gives up some of his liberty so that all members of society can participate in the resources and benefits of freedom. Over the years, laws have been created to establish how much liberty must be surrendered for the benefit of all. But as society changes, those laws need to be reconsidered. No individual or group can use laws to limit the liberties of others in order to increase their own liberties.