Individual liberties! Rights! Equal protection under the law! Humbug. Find me an individual and that individual can have his rights. Who are we to disrespect the letter of the law, after all? But find me a man, and then try to name to me his universals. Find me a woman and do the same. And I don’t mean mere categorical statements of facts—that they live, are bipedal, have hearts and minds—but universal obligations owed to them by nature of their birth as human beings, divorced from the mandate of the state, and imbued upon them by God himself! Name me a universal natural right and there can be named at least ten exceptions, or ten instances where it is rendered meaningless, or ten reasons why it means nothing in the first place.
The dialogue of natural rights is little more than an effort to contextualize statements of justice into statements of narcissism; it functions to atomize the coherency of a society, which operates according to a rule of law and cause and effect, into a code of conduct knowable only by its pieces and invisible to the whole. The vaguely-defined concept of the individual becomes the central object of justice, rather than the bonds established between people, families, communities, and institutions. Yet all societies that seek to frame questions of justice with the terminology of rights degrade their conversation into the ambiguities of wishful thinking and the strengthening of an amorphous, disembodied bureaucracy of a state. Who, after all, can guarantee that right such-and-such will not be infringed upon by your fellow citizen? Give that power over to the state, they proclaim! They’ll intervene on your behalf. Trust them! It’s not like states have never actively tried to annihilate whole segments of their populations before.
But wait, you say, the US Constitution is written such that the government is supposed to guarantee never to infringe upon certain rights of the citizenry. It has very little to do with citizens acting unjustly toward each other, right? It’s all just a matter of preserving certain freedoms in society against government encroachment.
Well, that’s sort of the problem, isn’t it? Take the Second Amendment: the founding fathers sincerely believed that it was a right of the citizenry to own the means of self-defense, not only in the form of a simple bladed tool, but in the form of what was at the time a military-grade firearm. And why? So that communities could organize themselves into, if need be, militias to defend against governmental authoritarianism. It shall not be infringed. And what does the amendment refer to now? Of course it won’t be infringed, unless you’re under a certain age, or you’re trying to buy certain kinds of firearms, or you’ve got a criminal background, or you want to carry it around with you, or it has a certain kind of stock, has a magazine that holds a certain number of rounds, or looks scary. Some of these are state regulations, but that’s of little concern for the argument here. What does the right to bear arms even mean? It means, presumably, that any person who fulfills the necessary conditions has a right to own a gun. But if there are conditions involved, then it isn’t an inalienable natural right, ordained by virtue of your birth. In fact, it reads more like a contract: maintain your side of the deal by maintaining the necessary conditions, and the government agrees not to disarm you.
All of a sudden, the means by which the Constitution was supposed to check itself seems more counterintuitive than ever. The language used in order to safeguard Americans against the encroachment of government regulation and bureaucratic rule has done the exact opposite. The question is not, “do you have a right to own a gun?” Rather, the question is, is it just for you to own a gun? Apply the same semantic reformulation to any bullet point on the Leftist’s list of unfulfilled human rights—healthcare, minimum wage, universal basic income, etc—and you’ll quickly find the entire tapestry of individualism unraveling faster than a Marxist could run away from a job application.
Here’s the problem: to speak within the framework of rights is to speak within the framework of contracts. A man is due—has a right—to compensation as recompense for work he agrees to service to another. Employment, not government, works according to contracts. Services must be agreed to, compensation must be bargained for, lengths of time under employment and the means of payment must be hammered out—but at no point would an contract signed under coercion be considered a just contract. The employer and the employee can understand one another, and though one enters the employ of the other, the servitude is never considered a form of slavery; a man retains his dignity and his boss uses his labor to further his enterprise.
But government? Government is a legislative and legal body. It cannot negotiate the terms of its regime with every individual in the society that it governs; modern liberal regimes who appeal to the “consent of the governed” do so very loosely, and with the understanding of who, ultimately, wields the scepter of power. Governments exist with the intent to outlive any one person in the society, and most were established before any one person in that society was born. What contract could you have signed when you were born? What promises were made on your account for you to grow up here, to understand the social fabric, take the proper cues, get educated, a job, and raise your own family here? For how long are the services you agreed to render demanded, and in what form is your compensation to be administered? To whom, exactly, are these services rendered? From whom, precisely, is your compensation due?
Obviously, looking at things this way degenerates into absurdity. A state is not a contract forged in utero. It is a conglomeration of communities, which are conglomerations of families, which are developments and unions of people. Applying the framework of contracts to communities removes common civility and replaces it with a series of interactions in which services are rendered from one person to another in exchange for some sort of emotional commodity. Common courtesy is turned into a bargaining chip, favorable greetings become opening negotiations, body language becomes a means to understand the opposition. Social cohesion devolves from a network of trusting neighbors into a modern alien space of insularity and distrusting glances, ignorant remarks, and callousness. The soul, preoccupied with trying to come out on top of a pile of deals made in its best interest, turns inward and ceases to make meaningful fellowships with its neighbors.
Contracts certainly have their places in society, but rationalizing the circumstances of one’s birth in the form of contractual agreements is simply mad. Indeed, the government necessarily cannot operate within the boundaries of a contract, because the government’s courts are the only legal body capable of arbitrating disputes between citizens and enforcing the agreements and rights spelled out within that contract. To whom can a citizen make appeals to when his natural rights are infringed upon by a governing authority? The government established according to the US Constitution made allowances for that—the judicial branch was intended to remain a wholly unrelated and nonpolitical branch of the government entirely. The Supreme Court exited solely to arbitrate disputes between the Senate, the House, and the Administrative branch; wholesale attempts to pass laws by judicial fiats were unthinkable, and the dignity of the office was maintained by justices that, presumably, understood the nature of the fledgling government at the time. Naturally, that didn’t last long; Marbury v Madison created the circumstances by which the court gave itself the power to reinterpret the Constitution nearly at will, which included the power to reinterpret the so-called rights that were spelled out on parchment clear as day. Two hundred years later, the supremacy of the court had reached such heights that something like redefining what a family was had fallen well within their arbitrative powers. You give a government a bit of power and it will always find ways of getting more of it.
Talk of rights degenerates even further when the family is considered. The family is a social unit that exists causally prior to any secular or political system of justice. Morality and the natural order keep the unit together, in service to God and to one another. Only in extreme cases of abuse or neglect is it even conceivable for a reasonable state to intervene—and, even in such a case, it is more appropriate for the community of neighbors or the congregation to intervene before the legal authorities have to. Where is the language of rights there? A wife has a right not to be abused? A child has a right to be attended to? A father has a right to be respected? But abuse has become a term with an ever-expanding range of definitions; today, feminists are willing to argue that simply not paying attention to your wife constitutes a form of abuse, and likewise, paying too much attention to her is also a form of abuse. No universal natural right to anything can be based on such an obvious contradiction. This extends to children and to a father’s respect, also. If someone tries to make the case that it is a particular man’s right to be respected by his children, rather than simply saying that it is right to respect one’s father, then the father becomes the object to whom some form of compensation is owed. In the latter’s case, the bond between the father and the son or daughter is itself the object, and the terminology is phrased within a moral framework rather than a contractual one. It is right to not abuse wives or children because it is right not to abuse people in the first place; the marriage status between the two involved elevates the importance of that moral imperative. It is right to respect one’s father because it is right to respect those who have come before you and serviced your upbringing in the first place; and like the previous example, the familial bond in question elevates the importance of that moral imperative. It is not a right to have these things dispensed upon any particular person at all. Believing such creates a moral worldview dependent upon entitlement, arrogance, and self-centeredness rather than one based on justice, mercy, and love. How can someone allow themselves to love if he is expecting to be compensated for it? There’s another word for that, but it would turn wives into prostitutes and husbands into pimps—an unsurprising conclusion given how both Marxism and its daughter, radical feminism, perceive the family.
Natural rights assume an ethereal contract with god made at conception. They bargain morality in exchange for certain guaranteed safeties dispensable only according to a divine justice. But whatever god the natural rights are supposedly derived from, he is not the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost. The Lord made his agreements with Man, and they came in the form of Christ and his crucifixion. God does not ask for compensation in exchange for services rendered. He asks only for love, and that through love for Him, his divine will and law be acknowledged. The god that underwrites the natural rights is Epicurus’ god, who sees the transgressions against natural rights all over the world and is either powerless to stop them or callous enough not to care. Anyone who would sign that contract is looking for a bad deal indeed.