Human Rights, Defined Correctly

Whenever a Republican president takes a position on human rights that differs from Progressive-liberal dogma, the media reacts with outrage.  But regardless of whether the policies of any one president are just or unjust, the Progressive-liberal position on human rights is not supported by history or logic.

From the very beginning, human rights have been defined as natural rights in the United States.

In 1774, while meeting at the First Continental Congress, representatives from the colonies, including future president George Washington, explained that despite the oppressive acts of the British government, the colonists still had the rights to life, liberty, and property under natural law.

Then in 1776, while meeting at the Second Continental Congress, representatives from the colonies, including future president Thomas Jefferson, based the Declaration of Independence on natural rights, and proclaimed that securing these rights is the purpose of government.

Natural rights have four main features:

  • They are universal (they apply to everyone, everywhere);
  • They are unchanging (they stay the same, from generation to generation);
  • They are unalienable (they cannot be taken away by a government);
  • they are negative (they are the right to not be killed, the right to not be physically restrained, the right to not be robbed, and so on).

While natural rights are universal and therefore apply in every nation, the government holding power in one nation does not have a duty to secure the natural rights of people from another nation.  For example, Mexico has the duty to secure the natural rights of the Mexican people; Syria, the Syrian people; et cetera.  However, when a nation has permitted a foreigner to legally enter the nation, such a duty exists for as long as the foreigner is legally present in the nation.  Nevertheless, there is no duty to permit a foreigner entry into a nation in the first place, and there is no duty to secure the natural rights of anyone present in a nation illegally.  Consequently, the United States does not have a duty to permit either immigrants or refugees into the nation, and it does not have a duty to secure the natural rights of illegal immigrants (from Mexico or any other nation).

Now, while natural rights are unalienable and cannot be taken away by a government, these rights can be forfeited by an individual, but only when an individual violates the man-made laws of a nation (specifically, the man-made laws that are necessary to secure the natural rights of the people).  In such a situation, a government can legitimately hold an individual accountable by depriving the individual of life, liberty, or property, depending on the facts of the case.

Still, while the natural rights of an individual can be forfeited by that individual, the natural rights of an individual cannot be taken away (or voted away) by other individuals, even if those individuals represent a majority of the people.  During the Founding Era, Samuel Adams reiterated that "the great end" of government is the support, protection, and defense of the natural rights to life, liberty, and property.  And reiterating another fundamental principle, he said, "If men through fear, fraud or mistake, should in terms renounce and give up any essential natural right, the eternal law of reason and the great end of society, would absolutely vacate such renunciation."

Today, a few Progressives and liberals continue to cite the Declaration of Independence and sing the praises of the unalienable rights, while at the same time supporting man-made laws that violate those very rights.  Most Progressives and liberals simply reject natural rights openly and outright.

In doing so, Progressives and liberals also reject the main features of natural rights; in particular, they claim that people have positive rights, including positive rights to government assistance.  But this claim if false.  The rights to life, liberty, and property are not positive rights to government services or benefits that assist the sustaining of life, or the exercise of liberty, or the acquisition of property.  Moreover, a government cannot provide the positive rights demanded by Progressives and liberals without violating the natural rights of many other people.

Notably, the Founding Fathers held that natural rights are given by God, and this is the position that has been held for centuries by many leading minds.  Additionally, some secular scholars have long held that natural rights exist, independent of God, rooted in the natural order that exists in the world.  In contrast, Progressives and liberals accept the existence of a natural order in the world for everything (climate, plants, insects, et cetera) except human beings.

According to Progressives and liberals, rights are granted by government, not given by God (or nature), and rights are defined by government, if granted.  Not surprisingly, these "rights" are defined in ways that impose Progressive-liberal ideology on everyone in the nation.

Natural rights are different.  Undeniably, life is not an ideology, liberty is not an ideology, and property is not an ideology.  Life, liberty, and property exist naturally, regardless of whether a government exists or whether a nation exists.  As the French statesman Frederic Bastiat long ago noted, "Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws.  On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place."  And to repeat, the founding document of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, proclaims that governments are instituted to secure the natural rights of the people.

Indeed, every major injustice that has occurred in U.S. history, from slavery onward, has taken place in a situation where a level of government, federal or state, failed to properly secure the natural rights.  Today, instead of binding old wounds, Progressives and liberals are ripping open new ones.


Paul Pauker is the author of Morality and Law in America. He also runs a website dedicated to advancing the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and property.


If you experience technical problems, please write to