Individual Freedom vs. the Right to a Cell Phone

Europe seemed incapable of becoming the home of free states. It was from America that the plain ideas that men ought to mind their own business, and that the nation is responsible to Heaven for the acts of State -- ideas long locked in the breasts of solitary thinkers, and hidden among Latin folios -- burst forth like a conqueror upon the world they were destined to transform, under the title of the Rights of Man. - Lord Acton
The government of the United States was created to protect each individual's unalienable rights. These rights are clearly defined in The Declaration of Independence as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Unfortunately, politicians over the years have perverted the definition of unalienable rights and in the process have turned individuals into servants of the state. While this sentiment -- individuals as servants of the state -- may seem preposterous to even some conservative leaning Americans it is worth exploring the definition of a "right" and considering whether current government programs violate this principle.

First and foremost, unalienable rights are rights to action.  An individual's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness imposes no obligation on others, except to abstain from violating his rights. Ayn Rand, the most precise and vigorous proponent of individual freedom wrote in her famous essay entitled "Man's Rights",

"Observe...the intellectual precision of the Founding Fathers: they spoke of the right to the pursuit of happiness -- not of the right to happiness. It means that a man has the right to take the actions he deems necessary to achieve his happiness; it does not mean that others must make him happy.... The right to life [and liberty] means that a man has the right to support his life by his own work (on any economic level, as high as his ability will carry him); it does not mean that others must provide him with the necessities of life...The right to property means that a man has the right to take the economic actions necessary to earn property, to use it and to dispose of it; it does not mean that others must provide him with property."1

Individual freedom in this sense refers solely to a relationship of men to other men and the only infringement on it is coercion by men. According to F.A. Hayek, "the range of physical possibilities from which a person can choose at a given moment has no direct relevance to freedom. The rock climber on a difficult pitch who sees only one way out to save his life is unquestionably free...if [he] were to fall into a crevasse and were unable to get out of it, he could only figuratively be called "unfree," and that to speak of him as being "deprived of liberty" or of being "held captive" is to use these terms in a sense different from that in which they apply to social relations."2

What makes America special, as Lord Acton emphasized, is the fact that our Republic was established under a written Constitution with the express purpose of protecting individual freedom from coercion by other men and especially by the government -- even against the will of the majority. No previous country or society had ever come close to achieving this degree of freedom. Reflections from our Founders make this point clear.

Security to the persons and properties of the governed is obviously the design and end of the civil government. - John Hancock, March 17743

A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement and not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. - Thomas Jefferson, March 18013

However, beginning with the Progressive movement, which stemmed from the Socialist movement in Europe, a serious push was made to redefine "unalienable rights" as an individual's right to freedom from necessity. This concept destroys individual liberty because "necessity" can only be arbitrarily defined and for the government to provide any "necessity" at the involuntary expense of other individuals it must rely on coercion and extortion. 

According to Leonard Peikoff,

"if your mere desire for something, anything, imposes a duty on other people to satisfy you, then they have no choice in their lives... your right to anything at others' involuntary expense means that they become rightless."

This is true whether the desire be for social security, health care, housing, food, cars or cell phones. Consider this example, an individual stops you on the street and asks you for one-hundred dollars for a cell phone. You decline to give the money. The person then forcibly robs you. Any reasonable person would consider this a crime because through the use of force and coercion the robber is infringing on your right to property, which you've earned through your own effort.

Now consider the federal government program, SafeLink Wireless that provides a free cell phone and airtime each month for income-eligible customers. Don't be confused by the name of the program, which implies the service is intended to help underprivileged individuals in desperate situations. It is actually just a program designed to give people cell phones because the MTV/VH1 crowd can't live without them.

Where does the government get the money to provide this service? It gets it from you and me, the taxpayers, whether we object or not. However, unlike the individual robbed on the street, we the taxpayers can't charge the government with a crime. Are we rightless? The answer is obvious.

While the SafeLink Wireless program is an egregious assault on individual freedom, it is important to keep in mind that it is not an isolated incident but rather a continuation of government policies over the last century (instituted by both political parties) which violate individual freedom and undermine the principle of personal responsibility. This led Hayek to write, "this belief in individual responsibility, which has always been strong when people firmly believed in individual freedom, has markedly declined, together with the esteem for freedom."

The SafeLink program does prove one thing: the majority of politicians are more concerned with passing legislation to increase their own power and swell their voting constituencies than in protecting individual rights. This trend will only continue unless we, as individuals, stand up and defend our rights with precision and clarity

Andrew Foy, MD and Brent Stransky are authors of the upcoming book, "The Young Conservative's Field Guide." They can be contacted through their website at

1. Hayek, FA. The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960.

2. Rand, Ayn. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: Penguin, 1964.

3. The Quotable Founding Fathers. Fall River Press, 2008