People have rights, not states or governments

by Tibor Machan

The bulk of liberals are an inconsistent lot. Take, for example, their support of the pro-choice position in the abortion controversy. These same people are almost uniformly hostile to choice in many other areas. Just ask them if they support choice in developing one’s own property as one likes, or whether one has the authority to decide on what to spend one’s own money (instead of having it taxed by government).

The fact is this tiny sphere of authority is all these folks wish to keep out of government’s reach. On most other issues, like whether a company may outsource jobs to countries where labor costs less (which then keeps American consumers richer and able to choose to spend money they save), these people are anti-choice.

Consider, also, all the bellyaching about how the federal government is imposing “its will” on various states — e.g., California and Oregon — in such matters as medical marijuana and assisted suicides. Some liberals are even invoking the doctrine of states’ rights in these discussions.
Well, it’s by crushing states’ rights that much of the country got rid of segregation — various states’ rights to govern their own realm. Back then, upholding this so-called right had been defended by many Southerners who believed in such rights but were dismissed for it by liberals as racists. OK, should we then conclude that all this fuss about a state’s right to authorize the use of medical marijuana and to secure assisted suicide comes to no more than a disguised preference for pot smoking and for getting rid of some people who aren’t useful to society?

Actually, the problem is double think — holding contradictory views simultaneously. Many people are guilty of it. It’s what eating one’s cake and having it too is all about. Some erudite folks even defend such thinking in books. For example, Robert Fogelin does this in his recent book, “Walking the Tightrope of Reason”” (Oxford 2003).

However, the world cannot be understood and dealt with successfully if we hang on to such internally inconsistent, incoherent thinking. Either the feds can overrule the state governments in all matters they take an interest in or they cannot. Holding to both positions simply will not work. Laws cannot be fashioned with both ideas ruling legal thinking.
Yet neither does it sit well with most of us that the feds get to have a say about all these matters, without any restraints.

The major source of the confusion is rarely appreciated. It is the abandonment of the only rational use of the concept of rights. Rights are what individuals — not states, not governments at any level — have. That is the only consistent way to look at rights, including the right to making a choice in favor of aborting a fetus before it becomes an infant, the right to consume marijuana, the right to seek assistance if one wishes to end one’s life. If these are rights, they aren’t states’ rights but individual rights. Neither the federal nor the state, or, indeed, county or municipal, government is authorized to violate such rights.

Now and then it would be nice if all the folks invoking talk about rights did a bit of reading of America’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence. It is there that we get a clear, very accessible and non-academic statement about basic individual human rights; it is because we are human beings that we have such rights. That is how we are endowed with them, by virtue of having been created human, not because the feds or any other governments have decided to permit us to make various choices. (The Founders very wisely avoided the theological issue of whether we were created by God or Nature, leaving the reference open by using “creator.”)

If more people got on the same page about the issue of our individual human rights, rights that are unalienable — meaning none can lose them until his or her demise — then perhaps a coherent and united voice against state intervention could be raised and some progress could be made in the direction of rolling back government power.

As it stands, all we have is occasional shouts into the night that make little sense and cannot lead to any kind of coherent public policy.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at
Machan@chapman.edu