This is a discussion paper published by The Workers Party in 1975.
The most fundamental ethical issue at this time, or at any other time, is the issue of human rights. The most important conflicts in history, great revolutions against tyrants, civil wars and world wars, have been fought in the name of human rights. And the battles still continue. Today, students take over universities, and the poor demand a guaranteed annual income — also in the name of human rights. Such conflicts clearly do more to violate the rights of all than to further the cause of anyone. If ever man is to live in peace with his fellow and his self, it is imperative that the concept of human rights be precisely and rationally formulated.
The concept of human rights is as old as man. In essence it is simple. Rights are a principle of proper human action concerning man’s relationship with other men. The essence of the concept is that there are certain possessions of the individual, such as his own body and mind, which no other individual (or group) can justly control without his consent. First and foremost, rights are a claim of exclusive control. That which you do, or possess by right, I cannot properly interfere with. What, then, do you or I own exclusive title to?
First we own our own lives. If man has any rights at all, he must first and foremost have a “right to life,” for without life no thought, no choice and no action is possible. If I cannot control my own life, then there is clearly nothing else which I can control. Now, by my “life” I mean, essentially, my own mind, body and actions — the extensions of myself in time and space. Thus, as a consequence of my right to life, I also have a “right to liberty,” that is, to freedom of action (so long as my actions do not violate the same right of others). Lastly, as a consequence of my rights to life and liberty, I have a right to acquire property: entities external to myself. Since man is a material being he must necessarily possess and consume other material entities in order to live. Thus man necessarily has a “right to property” — meaning the right to use, control and dispose of external [there’s a word chopped off here that I can’t make out].
Any object which an individual owns by right, he may be said to have a property right to. Property rights are the application of the right to life of the individual to the material objects which exist in his world. In essence, property rights consist of the recognition of the fact that by acting on external objects which are previously unowned, the individual is the cause of alterations in them, and by this act acquires a right to use and dispose of them. In an advanced industrial economy, where the use of complex tools is required for the maintenance of a high standard of living, the major means of acquiring property is work and trade.
Human rights are thus the right (meaning: moral authority) of individual human beings to control their own life, liberty and earned property. Formally rights may be defined as “moral claims made by the criteria of possession (e.g., life), creation (e.g. value), earning (e.g. wages) or voluntary transfer (e.g. inheritance).”
Life, liberty and property — these are logically and necessarily the fundamental rights of individuals. But what of “the rights of society”?
Society, nation, country (or any other collective) are merely terms for groups of individuals, and have no existence apart from those individuals. In reality, such collectives are diverse classes, containing many different types of individuals, rather than unified entities with a distinct consciousness, will or life. Thus logically the so-called “rights of society” can be only a term for the individual rights of many separate persons; these rights do not and can not conflict.
But aren’t “human rights” more important than “property rights”? No. Property rights are human rights. Property is literally an extension of the individual. By investing my time in the production (or earning) of food, tools, clothing or other materials, I am embodying my thought and effort in a fixed material form. To attempt to take away the individual’s right to use and dispose of entities which he has created (or obtained in free exchange with others) is to rob him of the thought, time and effort which he has expended in obtaining them. Thus, there is and can be no conflict between human rights and property rights. The latter are but an aspect of the former. And thus those men who claim to be “placing human rights above property rights” are in reality attacking both.
What of the socialist claim that property ownership should be collective rather than individual? The first question to ask is “who should it be”? After all, if I expend the effort necessary to raise a crop, build a factory or lay a road, why should some socialist who never expended one bit of effort to create these things have some claim to them? And how does he propose to deprive me of them without putting a gun to my head? Clearly, the socialist who asserts that the group (or the state, or the people, or any other euphemism he chooses to use for his gang) can own property, but that the individual cannot is fallaciously to regard the collective as an entity above and beyond its constituent members. But only individuals exist; and either the individual has the capacity of ownership or he does not. If no single person can own property, then, necessarily, no group of people can own property. An attribute not residing in the individual does not suddenly pop into existence by renaming him “a member of society.” Thus, in addition to the practical difficulties involved in collective ownership (like the fact that I may not take very kindly to the socialist nationalising my farm, my house or my factory), the socialist who condemns individual ownership faces the hopeless ethical problem of negating the moral basis for all ownership.
The principle of human rights, including the principle of individual ownership, thus provides an absolute guide to proper human action. That which an individual possesses by right (including his own life and property) are morally his to use, dispose of and even destroy, as he sees fit. If I own my life, then it follows that I am morally free to associate with whom I please and not to associate with whom I please. If I own my own mind and abilities, it follows that I may ask any compensation I wish for using them to assist another.
If I own my own house, it follows that I may decorate it as I please and live in it with whom I please. If I control my own business, it follows that I may charge what I please for my products and services, hire whom I please on my own terms, and keep all the fruits of my labour. For anyone to attempt to limit my freedom of choice with respect to my own property is to violate my rights.
It is important to point out that since rights are a relationship of exclusive ownership or control, any group attempting to modify my ownership or control of my own property in the slightest degree is for them (to that extent) to prevent my exercise of my rights. It is clear that both you and I cannot simultaneously have finally say over the disposition of a single piece of property. Either I control it, or I do not. If it is my property and you object to what I am doing with it, or not doing with it, you can properly protest, refuse to deal with me, and encourage others to do the same; but you cannot properly attempt to use force to compel me to act as you desire. Thus is the crucial dividing line between my human rights and yours. I have a right to control my property. Whether I am rational or irrational, fair or unfair, wise or stupid in the disposition of my property, it remains my property.
My rights end where yours begin. I may do anything I wish with my own life, liberty and property without your consent; but I may do nothing with your life, liberty and property without your consent. The individual is morally sovereign of the domain of his own life, liberty and property, and is sovereign of no other domain. To interfere forcibly with another’s use, disposal or destruction of his own property is to initiate force against him, and to violate his rights.
To force is to modify the actions of the individual by harming or threatening to harm his life or property, or be deceiving him. There are morally two types of force: initiatory and retaliatory. The first type is immoral: the second type is moral. To initiate force is to use force against another who has not: for example, to attack an innocent victim. To defend oneself (or one’s values) against such an attacked is to use retaliatory force. The murdered, the thief, the looter, the embezzler, the dictator, the tax collector, and an aggressive army are examples of initiators of force. The moral policeman, a businessman who defends his store from looters, the husband who protects his wife from a rapist, and a defensive army are all examples of persons who are using retaliatory force. The initiator of force is the criminal. The retaliator of force is the policeman.
So long as men deal with each other voluntarily, respecting each other’s rights and abstaining from initiating force against each other, they are free. As a sociological concept, freedom is the ability to choose among the possibilities available in one’s environment without being the instigator or recipient of initiatory force. It is only when men aggress against one another, molesting the lives and property of others and violating their neighbours’ rights, that men’s freedom of action is abridged. And it is only when the use of coercion in society is institutionalised by a criminal gang or by a criminal government, that men can become enslaved.
The free society is ruled by one cardinal principle: “Respect the rights of others, then do what you please.” To the extent that this principle is observed by men, they and their societies are free. To the extent that it is violated, they and their societies are enslaved.
In a practical sense, this is what man’s rights means: you are morally free to sleep with whom you please, run your business your own way, dress as you please, speak your mind, take LSD or rat poison if you like, and keep 100% of your income. You may be wise or foolish in your actions, but any man who tries to run your life for you, whether he is your next door neighbour or the Prime Minister, is a criminal, pure and simple. No relative, no teacher, no policeman, no judge and no parliament has the right to tell you what to do with your own body, mind and income. Other people can suggest, encourage, or advise, but whenever they tell you that you must do something under penalty of fine, imprisonment or bodily injury, then they are no better than slave-masters. Your life is your own; so don’t let anyone tell you that they have a right to live it for you,
It is obvious that human rights in Australia today are being attacked on all fronts. For example, you right to property is being violated by the politicians who think that they have the right to spend 60% of your income (the present average amount paid in taxes) for you, simply because they think that a lot of other people agree with them.
But morality is not statistical. If it is wrong for one man to enslave you or steal your pay cheque, then it is also wrong for one million calling themselves a government to do so. The grouping of men into a collective does not endow them with rights which they do not otherwise possess or an authority that they otherwise have. If your next door neighbour does not have a right to force you to live as he pleases at the point of a gun, then neither does a judge or a policeman. Despite their pretentions and claims, these “public officials” are simply men, like you and me. If they want to fight communism in some foreign country, let them go, and pay for the war out of their own pockets.
In logic, there are no such thing as “group rights”, “national duties”, or “debts to society”. All rights, duties and debts are of and to individuals. The “public interest” and “social responsibility” are simply words used to intimidate individuals to surrender their life, liberty and property to the power elite without a struggle. Such rhetoric is often an attempt to make theft, murder or slavery acceptable by creating the illusion of popular support, and by justifying the sacrifice of some men (such as the young, the poor or the politically weak) to others (such as politicians, bureaucrats and their vested interests) on the grounds of social necessity.
But there is no necessity for theft, murder or slavery in the first place. The fact that these means are presently relied upon by governments throughout the world in a futile attempt to solve social problems, only demonstrates that force is now so prevalent and so accepted in human society that men are beginning to forget how to deal with their problems in any other way. But there is an alternative; an alternative that does not require the immolation of helpless children for the attainment of peace, or the wholesale looting of the productive for justice. The name of that alternative is freedom. Its instrumentality is voluntary exchange. And its philosophical basis is man’s rights.