If you ask any person in the United States today if he has the right to his life, to his liberty, and to his property he will most likely say yes. Indeed, these natural rights as espoused by John Locke in his, Second Treatise on Government, were a bedrock idea in the forming of this nation. They are stated in a straightforward way in the Declaration of Independence and are affirmed in various ways in the United States Constitution. From this perspective, the purpose of government is for the equal defense of these rights for all citizens.
Unfortunately, the nation has moved far from this foundation over the last hundred years. Today our liberty to choose is closely restricted by an administrative state that imposes mandates upon us that would have been unthinkable to the Founders. We are being told how much water may be used in our toilets, what kind of cars we ought to drive, and even whether we can have gas stoves in our homes. This is only the tip of the iceberg of the rules and regulations we face daily. To be sure, our ability to start and run our own business is subject to so many rules that many simply give up on the thought of doing so. How did we get here?
The short answer is the encroachment of legal positivism, which is an idea that rejects the concept of individual natural rights. Legal positivism is a collectivist idea that laws should be based on the common good rather than on absolute moral principles. One of the first people to postulate this was the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Bentham argued that people do not possess rights. He embraced the rising tide of atheism and argued that human beings are merely animals that prefers pleasure to pain. Therefore, he put forth the case that our laws should be based on a hedonistic calculus. That is, any law should be adopted that promoted more pleasure in society than the pain that it would inflict. The problem with this is that pleasure and pain cannot be accurately measured. At root, this becomes a form of collectivism or socialism broadly defined. In addition, it is a utopian form of thinking that became very fashionable in the 19th century, which promotes that if we could somehow get wealth equitably distributed, everyone would naturally get along.
At the turn of the 20th century, this concept of government moved into the mainstream of the country with the election of Woodrow Wilson. For the progressive movement of the day, the U. S. Constitution stood as a major obstacle to the implementation of legal positivism. For that reason, he argued that the document was old fashioned and did not fit the new environment. It needed to be considered a living, breathing document. His administration pushed through the 16th Amendment to allow for a progressive income tax and thus the forced redistribution of private property. In addition, they pushed for the adoption of the 17th Amendment that changed the way U.S. senators are selected, thus eliminating any voice of state governments in Washington, DC. Finally, the administration monopolized money and banking in the U. S. with the creation of the Federal Reserve. All of these undercut the natural rights of the individual person and concentrated more power in Washington D.C.
The situation was exasperated with the election of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal programs. Roosevelt argued for a new set of rights, such as the right to a decent job, the right to health care, the right to education, and more. The problem with this argument is that these cannot be equally applied to everyone. In fact, to suggest these as rights is to throw out all natural rights. When someone says that he has the right to education as something to be provided by government, what he is in fact saying that he has the right to vote for government officials to rob his neighbor to pay for his education. When the IRS takes your money by taxation, it is not a charitable contribution. When we are talking about economic goods and services, and education is just that, in a free society the individual does have the right to purchase as much of it as he can afford or to receive it as a voluntary gift from someone else. He does not have the right to hold a gun to his neighbor’s head and demand that his neighbor should pay. You cannot force charitable collection of money. Using government to hold the gun is simply a form of legalized theft and we need to see it in that light.
The bottom line is that we live in a country that has largely embraced legal positivism even as we attempt to assume our natural rights to life, liberty, and property. But these two ideas are antithetical to each other. We live in a time when understanding this reality is crucial if the nation is to move forward in a positive direction. This begins with educating students about history and government. This can no longer be left to the “government schools.” The vested interest of these schools is clear. They will indoctrinate students to accept the tyranny of collectivism and promote legal positivism over the natural rights of the individual.