Schools of Thought in Classical Liberalism, Part 5: Natural Rights

Nigel Ashford,

Release Date
May 9, 2012


Free Markets and Capitalism

Some philosophers believe that all human beings have natural rights. America has a strong natural rights tradition, embodied in the Declaration of Independence’s claim that all men are endowed with “certain unalienable rights.” In part 5 of his series, Dr. Nigel Ashford explores the beliefs and philosophical methodology of philosophers Ayn Rand and Robert Nozick,  both of whom believed that natural rights should dictate the proper role and size of government.
The philosophers agree that government often violates our natural rights. They also argue that capitalism is the only moral economic system, since it is based on voluntary action. So what should the proper role of government be? Rand and Nozick argue for a minimal state whose sole purpose is to protect our natural rights.

Introduction to Nozick [Article]: Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia begins with the statement “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person may do to them (without violating their rights).” In this article, philosopher Mark Friedman explores Nozick’s philosophy, and traces the intellectual origins of natural rights theory.
Ayn Rand in her own words (Video): Rand formulated her theory on the natural rights of man in her book “The Virtue of Selfishness.” Listen to a reading of that passage.
Ayn Rand on Rights [Text]: A collection of Ayn Rand’s thoughts and theories about natural rights.
1. What are natural rights?
2. What is Objectivism?
3. What is  Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice?

Schools of Thought in Classical Liberalism, Part 5: Natural Rights
Now let’s look at Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, and at natural rights. Ayn Rand is famous for being a novelist, but she wrote also lots of philosophy, probably best known for her book Atlas Shrugged. Robert Nozick was a Harvard philosopher who wrote a famous book called Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Both of them taking the so-called natural rights approach. So they believed that natural rights is the correct approach to deciding political questions. America has a strong tradition of natural rights going back to the American founding. They were strongly influenced by the ideas of John Locke, who believed these natural rights came from God. And we saw that expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
Ayn Rand is associated with what she called objectivism. She believed that there was an objective reality and an objective morality, that we can discover reality and morality by the use of reason. We know that it is in the nature of man to want to live, to want to survive. In order for people to live, in order for people to survive, they have to have certain natural rights. They are necessary to exist. So we know that natural rights exist because they arise from man’s nature. This is called a teleological explanation, that is, natural rights exist for the goal or purpose of human beings.
Robert Nozick also believes in natural rights. He believes that it’s by pursuing rational self-interest you would not violate the natural rights of others. He assumes that rights exist. He examines what’s the consequences of that. It doesn’t depend on a particular view of human nature. So in this view, natural rights is a so-called deontological approach. Natural rights tell us the limits of what we should do. For example, thou shall not kill, clear moral principle that tells us that we should protect the rights of people, in this case, not to be killed. So both believing in natural rights but coming, explaining it by two different methodologies. They both agree that the problem with government is that it violates our natural rights. It is immoral to use force to obtain your goals.
Capitalism, they argue, is the only moral economic system. It is based on voluntary exchange; it’s not based on coercion. So the problem with government is that much of what government does is to undermine our natural rights. So what is the role of government? It’s a minimal state whose sole purpose is to protect our natural rights. Rand describes this as a minimal state, which places force under objective control. rObjectively, we can determine what the role of government should be. And Nozick says that there should be a minimal state against force, theft, fraud, and the enforcement of contracts is justified. Anything beyond that role is illegitimate because it violates people’s rights.
He talks about defending capitalist acts between consenting adults. As long as the people involved are agreeing voluntarily, they should be allowed to do whatever they want to do. So the result of this is that they believe in a minimal state solely designed to protect us. So the state should provide a military to defend us. It should provide a police to defend us against criminals. It should provide a court to avoid conflict between people. And that is it. There’s no justification for any form of government beyond that, such as a welfare state.