Members of the radical Left have some embarrassing history to answer for. When Marxists got into power, the result was generally dictatorship, labor camps and a bout or two of mass starvation. But the advocates of limited government have some embarrassing moments in history to answer for, also. The paragons of laissez-faire capitalism, Britain and the United States during the Nineteenth Century, were not exactly utopias that we want to go back to.
The major ugly aspects of both systems can be traced to the violation of the natural rights as described in this chapter. The appropriation and labor camps of the Marxist governments are obvious examples of classical natural rights violations. Slavery and lack of women’s rights in Nineteenth Century Britain and the U.S. are also obvious violations of classical natural rights.
But we can go further and lay much of the blame for worker exploitation during the Industrial Revolution on the violation of the expanded set of natural rights. Great Britain (and feudal societies in general) had a legal system that amplified the inequalities between the owners of natural resources and those who lived by their labor. Primogeniture was designed to keep the land in a few hands, and the enclosure movement took away land rights from the peasants without compensation. And the Corn Laws subsidized landowners while making food more expensive for landless laborers. Laissez-faire politicians of the time get credit for fighting against the Corn Laws and for the poor. Once upon a time, limited government was part of a Leftist agenda; it can be so again.
The discussion of natural rights in this chapter is by no means complete. There are important questions remaining, including questions I do not know how to answer. Instead of putting my foot into my mouth by giving bad answers, I leave you with a few questions to wrestle with.
- Consider a wealthy family which owns a large tract of virgin forest. They do not cut down or damage the forest; they simply enjoy nature. However, they keep all tresspassers out. Are they receiving an unfair share of the earth's resources?
- Is the family above providing any service in return for their exclusive enjoyment of their chunk of nature?
- Suppose we tax virgin forest at the same rate as "improved" land. What are the environmental consequences? Especially consider decendents of the family in Question 1 who may otherwise not be so wealthy.
- Consider two prehistoric pioneers, Glorg and Ook. They each claim equal shares of territory for themselves and their descendants. The children of Glorg are many, while the children of Ook are few, and have small families. Do the children of Glorg have a moral claim to some of the land of the children of Ook, since the children of Ook have larger estates?1
- Take the logic of the above question and apply it to nations. Do nations that practice birth control lose moral right to their larger per capita parcels of land?
- Consider the rules of inheritance in the Bible with ideas in this chapter and with Question 4. How well do the Biblical rules follow this extended theory of natural rights? How well do these rules answer the objection of Question 4?
1Thanks to Jim Lark, former Chairman of the Libertarian Party, for pointing out this troubling question.
There are many works on the subject of natural rights. I will list a couple, and give you a source for many others.
- The Progress Report. An online magazine with articles from an extended natural rights perspective. Plenty of other links here to other sites of a left-libertarian nature.
- The Ethics of Liberty, by Murray Rothbard. A hardcore uncompromising exposition of "classical" natural rights theory and a supposedly complete system of law based upon this theory. Note how Rothbard comes up with a very progressive solution to Third World land reform based upon libertarian premises. Then, note the unpleasant environmental consequences of his theory of land reform.
- Simple Rules for a Complex World, by Richard Epstein. Epstein looks at some practical problems with legal systems based on a purist theory of classical natural rights and adds some minimal extensions to allow tackling the hard problems.
- Laissez-Faire Books. laissezfairebooks.com. An excellent source of other works on classical natural rights theory and the implications thereof.
- Progress and Poverty, by Henry George. The orginal advocate of the "single tax" to handle the problem of the unearned benefits that come from owning land. I need to read this one myself. I have only read citations.
- Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, ascribed to Moses. Note how farmland ownership was to be handled in the light of the questions above. Note how farmland was treated differently from land in cities. Note the bankrupcy laws. Compare the laws on gleaning fields and Sabbath years with the rights of Foraging and the Walkabout. I intend to explore these things in a later chapter. Stay tuned.