Rights and Responsibilities

There is an old argument about rights that has enjoyed resurgent popularity in these days of “spreading the wealth around.” It says that while human beings undoubtedly have rights, they also have responsibilities. In fact, for every right there is a corresponding responsibility that is its complement. One should not be surprised that this line of reasoning appeals to statists of all varieties, because they see in it a way to undercut rights and dress up their schemes of plunder and domination as “responsibilities.”

What are the characteristics of a right? A right is an absolute and exclusive claim to something. “Absolute” because you cannot partially have a right to something. You either have a right to it wholly or not at all. “Exclusive” because that which you have a right to no one else can claim a right to.

A right defines something that you are entitled to (there really is a proper use of that word). You do not need anyone’s permission to exercise a right. No one can charge you a fee for exercising it. No government can regulate it. You are entitled to exercise rights without interference by or permission from anyone.

Consider the right to life. Is it absolute or do you have a right to live merely under certain conditions? Is the right to life exclusive or do others have some partial right to your life? Are you entitled to live, or can other people charge you a fee in return for allowing you to live? Can a government pass a law or regulation qualifying your right to life?

There are different kinds of rights, based upon their origins. Legal rights derive from a contract. While these rights originate with the consent of others, such as your right to a house that you have purchased, that right nevertheless takes on all of the characteristics described above once you have acquired it. The corresponding responsibility to the right of ownership of the house is the obligation to pay for the house. Your responsibility to pay derives from the contract you entered into. You are obliged to pay the seller because you have consented to do so in exchange for the house.

Natural rights are inherent in each person. These are part of and inseparable from our humanity. They cannot be taken away. Even if they are violated, they nevertheless remain. When we recognize something to be “wrong,” it is usually the violation of a right. When we recognize something as “evil,” it is invariably the violation of a natural, inalienable right.

Now, let us consider “responsibilities.” A responsibility is something that you are obliged to do. It is an obligation that you must fulfill in order to comply with a moral or legal code. Responsibilities do not always conform to our wishes. We may prefer to do one thing, but have the responsibility to do another. Like rights, there are different types of responsibilities.

When politicians talk about responsibilities, they mean those that can be enforced by violence, as all laws are ultimately enforced. That raises an important question: When is the use of violence justified in compelling someone to fulfill their responsibilities? Can violence or the threat of violence be used in enforcing all responsibilities? Obviously not. There are some responsibilities that cannot be enforced by other people at all.

Those who believe in God feel a responsibility to worship or to pray. That perceived responsibility is certainly not enforceable by other people. If there is an absolute, inalienable right of conscience, then no human may use violence against another for failing to fulfill the responsibility of praying. Certainly, God may claim a right to punish someone who has shirked this responsibility, but other people cannot. That is because the obligation related to the responsibility for praying is to oneself and to God, not to anyone else.

Put another way, you have a right of conscience and a corresponding responsibility to act according to the dictates of your conscience. To act against the dictates of your conscience may have negative consequences, but violence inflicted upon you by other people cannot be one of them. Otherwise, you must conclude that it is possible for a right to be destroyed by its corresponding responsibility.

So what responsibilities can be enforced with violence or the threat of violence by other people ? Since violence is only justified in defense, the only responsibility that can be enforced with violence is the responsibility to refrain from violating the property rights of others, “property” being defined as one’s life, liberty and justly acquired possessions. It is only when one person has failed to fulfill this responsibility that others are justified in using violence. When other people use violence or the threat of violence under any other circumstances, they are failing to fulfill their own responsibility not to violate the property rights of others.

Consider the natural and inalienable right to liberty. Is this a right? Yes. Does it have a corresponding responsibility? Yes, the responsibility to not violate the liberty of others. Can others use violence or the threat of violence to enforce this responsibility? Yes, because doing so defends the property rights of an innocent person.

Most often, It is not the rights to life, liberty, or conscience the statist has in mind when he begins his sermon about responsibilities. While he may be willing to violate all of these rights as his means, it is rarely his end. No, the statist’s primary object is not your life or liberty, but your possessions, meaning your money, land or “stuff.” It is here the statist will stand up to say, “Yes, you have a right to acquire and own possessions, but you have a corresponding responsibility to pay your ‘fair share’ to society.” Of course, the statist claims the right to use the threat of violence – the government – to compel you to fulfill this responsibility. But where does this responsibility come from? And is acquiring possessions a natural and inalienable right?

There are only three ways to justly acquire possessions. One must either take them directly out of nature, create them with materials taken directly out of nature, or take possession of someone else’s possessions by agreement. This last means of acquisition may be the result of a gift or a trade. It is not important whether the previous owner was compensated; only that he voluntarily consented to the transfer.

Most people acquire possessions by exchanging their labor for the possessions of others. In other words, they are employed by others to perform a certain type of work. In exchange for the work, they are given possessions in the form of money, with which they can acquire still other possessions. Depending upon the scarcity of the skills and experience they offer to purchasers of their services (employers), they may be able to sell their services for larger or smaller wages.

Whether an individual sells it for $20 thousand, $200 thousand, or $20 million dollars, no one would deny that his labor itself is his property. He has a right to this property, meaning his claim upon it is absolute and exclusive. He is entitled to own his labor and to dispose of it as he sees fit. Those are the bases of his right to sell it.

It must follow that he also has an absolute and exclusive right to those wages. After all, he has just exchanged part of his life for them. Who else could claim any right to part of his life? The wage earner will invariably exchange most of his wages for other goods, but his right to whatever he acquires with his wages is identical to his right to his labor itself, which is merely a portion of his life. Denying this right necessarily supposes other people have a right to part or all of his labor, and therefore part of his life.

There was once an institution wherein one group of people claimed a right to the labor of others. It was quite rightly abolished.

The statist will answer that the wages were a “blessing of society” for which the wage earner owes some portion back. If that were true, one would have to question the rationality and efficiency of this mysterious entity called “society,” which chooses to bestow blessings upon people, only to immediately demand part of those blessings back. Why not simply bless the individual less, leaving both parties square?

In reality, the wage earner has already paid his  “fair share” to society. For the $20 thousand or $20 million he has earned, he has provided exactly $20 thousand or $20 million worth of labor. How do we know his labor was worth that amount? The same way that we know the market value of anything. It is the price others are willing to pay for it.

Perhaps our wage earner is a painter. In that case, he has exchanged exactly $20 thousand in painting services for $20 thousand in cash. Nothing was given to him by any nebulous entity called “society.” He created that wealth himself with his own labor. He has an undeniable right to keep it and dispose of it as he sees fit. The corresponding responsibility is to respect the property rights of others, meaning to not appropriate or transfer their property against their will.

If there is any justification for a corresponding responsibility to “society,” it can only be the responsibility to pay for some service he has agreed to purchase from society. As we have discussed, the obligation associated with a responsibility to pay for something derives from a contract. If one agrees to purchase something, one has the responsibility to pay the previous owner the agreed upon price. This responsibility corresponds to the right of ownership of the purchased property.

So what has our wage earner purchased from society? What has he consented to buy? Accepting the extremely elastic definition of “consent” employed by proponents of constitutional government, he has consented to purchase protection of his life, liberty, and possessions. As Thomas Paine put it, his responsibility is to “surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest.”[1] If there is any responsibility incumbent upon him, it is to pay for these services rendered and no more. Even taxation for this purpose has a dubious moral foundation, as our wage earner has never really consented to purchase even this protection. That is why Paine also referred to government as “a necessary evil.”[2]

But let us assume that somehow this consent is real. Like the purchaser of the house, the citizen has entered into a contract. His responsibility to pay for protection of his property corresponds to his right to demand that the protection he has purchased be provided.

For the statist, this logical connection between rights and responsibilities does not exist. He asserts that the corresponding responsibility destroys the right. For him, the citizen has a responsibility to suffer the very crime he established government to protect him from in the first place – the invasion of his property. He is not entitled to the protection he has purchased, but instead has a responsibility to tolerate its antithesis – for his property to be invaded by the entity he has hired to protect it. As John Locke wrote, “the preservation of property being the end of government, and that for which men enter into society, it necessarily supposes and requires, that the people should have property, without which they must be supposed to lose that, by entering into society, which was the end for which they entered into it; too gross an absurdity for any man to own.”[3]

Absurdity is at the root of all statist thinking, producing bizarre and disastrous results. The statist seeks to grant some people rights to the labor of others, such as healthcare, education, or housing, while placing the responsibility to pay for these services on others, under the threat of  violence if they don’t. Neither these rights nor these responsibilities can possibly exist, for many reasons, one being the supposed rights are claimed by one person and the corresponding responsibilities placed upon another. If one wonders how a government can get so out of control that it spends all it can possibly tax from its citizens and all it can possibly borrow, yet still seems to need more, false rights and responsibilities are a good place to start.

[1] Paine, Thomas Common Sense from Paine: Collected Writings Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. New York, NY 1955 pg. 7

[2] Paine, pg. 6

[3] Locke, John Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government from Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration  Digireads.com Publishing Stillwell, KS 2005 pg. 113

Photo by Arvind Balaraman

Tom Mullen is the author of It’s the Fed, Stupid and Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness?


17 thoughts on “Rights and Responsibilities

  1. Pingback: Rights and Responsibilities

  2. Tony

    What your analysis excludes is the commingling of non-earned “money” into the marketplace. When nearly unlimited fractional reserve banking creates new dollars which can be used to pay for goods and services of others, the whole fair market based “pricing” of labor and services is eroded. The number of currency units is no longer a measure in and of itself.
    – Not that this refutes your argument, it just goes to show how, in an insidious manner, the statist mentality has perverted the balancing function of the system. But then this leads to the question of “how else should the monetary units be created in the first place”?

    1. Christian Livingstone


      The “how else” other than the modern phenomena of fiat paper currency, which is a criminal monopoly of the State and Central Bankers, seems historically obvious. I mean, tyrants and State bureaucrats have a long history of debasing currency/coins and hyper-inflating (counterfeiting) via a printing press and fraction-reserve lending. And those State Systems ultimately crashed, and for good reason, while they also caused a lot of chaos for those who relied on them.

      The one thing/commodity that acts as “money” best, since by its nature it imposes discipline on any would-be States and Tyrants, is precious and semi-precious metals as currency/coins or some redeemable notes of a bank or any proven vendor.

      So, it seems that even hostile States, after a global financial collapse, will be forced to admit their failure and will reluctantly include at least a component of precious metal redeemability into any “new” currency they propose, or People just won’t use their script and will reject them altogether.

      Of course, anything denominated in Paper now, will undoubtedly suffer big loses. And the savvy Rich, like the Texas University Endowment Fund, has recently converted 1 Billion Dollars of their Paper assets into Physical Gold Bullion, held by themselves in a rented vault.

      Peace be with you all,
      Christian Livingstone

  3. Christian Livingstone


    Nice refresher article.

    The State is a Parasitic Ego Mass which holds peoples Labor, Homes, and Children hostage, by threats of violence, and demands a ransom in taxes.

    Like Christ said, stating an obvious fact to his naive disciples, “… The kings of the Gentiles EXERCISE lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are CALLED benefactors. But it shall not be so among you…” Luke 22:25 & 26

    The State is a SHAKEDOWN and a SCAM, which was NOT ordained by God.

    So, “let every soul”, including tyrannical perverts, like NERO Caesar, or the modern equivalent, be willingly subject to a much HIGHER authority than any State or political fiction, ordained by a handful of dead slaveholders, who were greedy to have power over others.

    Peace be with you all,
    Christian Livingstone

  4. ManAboutDallas

    Mr. Mullen, I usually find myself in agreement with you, but here I will have to dissent. I would assert that the TRAGIC FLAW of the Constitution is that there WAS NOT a “Bill of Responsibilities” accompanying the “Bill of Rights”, one-for-one, and having the same legal enforceability as the Bill of Rights. The Founding Fathers made the tragic mistake of presuming the clear understanding of “responsibility-hand-in-hand-with-right” that was extant and, indeed, taken for granted in 1787 would continue somehow of its own momentum or its own self-evidency. We can clearly see that didn’t happen, did it ? Here we are, 224 years later, and the paradigm is “Give me my rights, but oh NO, don’t ask me to be responsible for ANYTHING!”

    1. Vae Victus

      The fact that later generations are unable, or unwilling, to understand Natural Law is not the result of flaws in the Constitution.

      Reason is not time bounded: if the Law can be reasoned in 1787, then the logic should follow in 1987 or 2011. If this is not the case, it speaks to the lack of perception and reason of the 2011 citizenry, NOT suppossed “flaws” in the document that is the *subject* of the reasoning.

      I think you missed the entire point of the article, btw.

    2. Duke1632

      “The Founding Fathers made the tragic mistake of presuming the clear understanding of “responsibility-hand-in-hand-with-right” that was extant and, indeed, taken for granted in 1787 ”

      You have clearly mis-defined a “right”. So let’s go to the source with respect to the Constitution: Rights pertain to that which we may do (or not do) “without asking leave or depending upon the will of” another (Locke). Thus, “I have a right to nothing which another has a right to take away” (Jefferson). If what you were refering to as rights does not fit those definitions, then you were not referring to rights at all. This mistake is apparent because no one can “give me my rights” as you seem to lament, as true rights already existed and could not be “given” (otherwise they could be revoked or not given, and hence would not be a right). No right has any obligation or responsibility attached to it** since if it did, it would not be a right. Clearly, rights, BY DEFINITION, cannot require any positive action on the part of the rightholder, such as an accompanying “responsibility”. If that were so, then the right would depend on the will of another or could be taken away. I suspect your confusion arises from the fact that you are viewing “rights” as a positive right (requiring positive action of another to maintain), when in fact all rights are negative rights, and therefore only require, at most, inaction on the part of others.

      **although the article argues in a holistic sense that your rights are destroyed if you infringe those of others akin to William Allen White’s: “Liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others.” It appears there is no particular need for this constraint if rights are confined to negative rights, as should be obvious anyway. To wit, “While history is largely a record of famous deeds, the history of liberty is measured very little by deeds, but rather by what we do not do.”

  5. JerichoM

    I don’t consent to any form of taxation or theft by any group no matter what they call themselves. How do you make this exception and maintain a consistent philosophy of individual rights?

    1. Duke1632

      I concur, yet note that government can still exist without involuntary taxation. Rather, all funding for govt can be received via voluntary contribution, which appears to be the THEORY behind the current US govt when the Constitution of first implemented. Why anyone would want any govt that is guaranteed to muck up any endeavor that a private agency could handle much better is beyond me, but that’s a different question. The argument is that, in theory and possibly neglecting the inherent dangers, govt could provide a service to people, viz. the service of reclaiming property and compensating victims for violations of their natural rights in the event the victim was unwilling or unable to do so his/her self. For that service, many people would voluntarily pay, but again, private insurance would be far superior in any event, without the onerous, inherent, legitimacy of “public” insurance.

  6. Christian Livingstone

    I’ll include some comments from my Facebook page, since I linked to this article there:

    Fonda Zion I agree,,,
    11 hours ago · Like

    Christian Livingstone Yeah, I even left some quick comments at this article site. But, as Christians, it is sometimes in our best spiritual interest NOT to exercise a right inherent in our humanity and God-given. Christ is the prime example, as Paul explains at Philippians 2, in that He “emptied Himself of His right to act as God” during His Incarnation and Atoning work.

    Fonda Zion I have always learned that I don’t have rights,, every good and perfect gift,,,, you know. So as I agree above for those who are not Christians,, As a matter of fact,,, I am pretty fine with that,,
    9 hours ago · Like

    Christian Livingstone Yeah, everyone deserves to be at liberty and free from tyranny, even if they use their liberty poorly, which people can do anyway, even with a multitude State “laws”. Punitive laws of a tyrant are costly and ineffective, but even if they worked, it would be doing evil so that good may come of it (which is worthy of our condemnation Apostle Paul tells us, and which most anyone not so steeped in Statist Idolatry can probably deduce).

  7. david

    Excellent, thought-provoking article. I was thinking about the relationship of man to God and man to the state after reading your comments (especially about man’s responsibility to God and God’s rights) and it occurred to me that the situation we find ourselves in is at least partially the result of idolatry. That is, we have placed “society” in the place of God. You very rightly demonstrate that a person owes no more to “society” for the fruits of his labor than the labor itself, but the state argues that we owe more, since “society” has provided us with the opportunity and wherewithal to labor for profit. Then the state magnanimously offers to stand in for “society” and redistribute this “excess” back to society (with a cut for itself and its operatives, of course).

    The state argues that “society” has given us what it truth God has given–life, talents, opportunity, the ability to work. And of course, the state is only too willing to confuse itself with “society”, as though they were one and the same. THEY ARE NOT. This is the lie that allows the state to intrude itself more and ever more into our lives–that the state and the people are the same. We should see through this ruse and always clearly separate the two.

    The marxists were the most overt in their claim that society is God, so much so that any recognition of the real God in that regime was anathema and punishable by a stay in the gulag. We don’t have the cojones to so clearly state the proposition, but we’re getting there.

  8. Ben Shimeda

    Great article.

    However, Mr. Mullen seems to be forgetting the importance of contracts, which he glossed over too quickly.

    If you come to my farm and decide you want to work on my farm – or maybe live in the guest house and start your business there – I might say, “Great, come and have at it!” So, you come onto my farm and set up housekeeping. And I say, “By the way, you realize that by coming onto my farm, you are choosing to live by the rules of my farm, right?” And you say, “Oh, yeah, yeah, absolutely.” Then, without asking exactly what those rules are, you start your business. After awhile, you start really earning some money. You are generating noticeable wealth. One day, I walk up to the door of the guest house and I say to you, “Now, you remember that you agreed to my contract, right?” And you say, “Huh? What contract?” And I say, “You know, I told you that if you are going to live on my farm, you have to follow my rules.” And you say, “Oh, yeah, I remember that! But I have no idea what those rules are!” And I say, “Well, one of them is that, when you come onto my farm and live in my guest house, you agree to share and share alike. I share 30% of everything you produce.” And you say, “Pardon me, sir, but I have a right to everything I produce and you can’t take 30% from me by force!” And I say, “Sorry, I don’t think you understand; you have a contract with me. And believe me, I will use the force of law to make sure you share with me.”

    A contract is a lien against your rights You can wax poetic all day about rights and responsibilities. But that does not change the terms of your contract with the plantation owner. When today politicians tell you you must pay “your fair share,” it is because you have agreed to do so by contract.

    1. Duke1632

      That is nonsense. There cannot be a contract unless both parties agree to the terms of the contract. If one party is unaware of the terms, then the contract is void. If the contract deigns to obligate one party to terms not expressly recited in advance or terms to be disclosed at some time after the “agreement”, as in your example, then the contract is void on its face. Also, no person living now or ever living in any State in America has ever contractually agreed to pay taxes. Spooner’s “No Treason” should be on your reading list if you doubt it or are otherwise unaware.

      In terms of a real contract, one in which all terms are known to all parties in advance, the landowner has the right to offer the use of his land for a 30% cut of production, just as the sharecropper has the right to refuse and go elsewhere with his labor.

    2. D.Vega

      And, you have forgotten one other little detail. In order to cave a contract with someone, the “farmer” must actually “own” the farm! Note, that (if we are reading your implications correctly) no government has any rights to a country. Governments are simply the employees that are hired to work there, by the owners, which separately, own may-be a significant portion of the land, but not all, as owning everything is never making sense.

      So, a government can not possibly enter into a contract any more than an employee can enter in a contract with a 3rd party with regards to the premises he is hired to work on.

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