Of Rights and Responsibilities – Clarence Carson


Clarence B. CarsonThe American Tradition: Part 11

Source: The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, Date 01 February 1964

Ideas that have come unsprung from the context which gave them vitality, practices that have been cut loose from the tradition in which they subsisted, may be likened to cancerous cells which prey at will upon the physical body. Again, when such develop­ments have occurred, the resulting growths may be compared to the parasitic suckers on a corn stalk which sap the life of the original plant but produce little or nothing of their own. Something analogous to the above has happened to the American tradition of rights and responsibilities. “Rights” prolifer­ate like wild cancer cells: e.g., the “right” to an education, the “right” to a “decent” wage, the “right” to a comfortable home, the “right” to adequate medical care, the “right” to vote, the “right” to the use of public buildings, and so on. The “right” to strike is fastened like a “sucker” upon and saps the vitality of the right of a man to the use of his property. The thrust to the provision of “rights” for minorities threatens to crush the residue of individual rights in America.

It is no different in the matter of “responsibilities.” They grow apace, in number and variety, while those matters which were formerly held to be the responsi­bility of individuals wither and die. President Kennedy had ex­horted us: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for it.” If juvenile de­linquency increases, we are all somehow to blame, according to the current mythos. If Negroes are mistreated, all Americans have a part of the guilt. If peoples in faraway lands are “underprivi­leged,” it is somehow the fault of the well-fed American. On the other hand, less and less is left solely for the individual to do for himself.

Under Cover of Confusion

Undoubtedly, it is true that those whom the gods would de­stroy they first make mad. It may be said with equal validity that those whom the gods would de­stroy they first confuse. At any rate, there should be no doubt that the deterioration of the American tradition has taken place beneath a cover of wide­spread confusion. There are many sources of this confusion. The be­lief that people have certain rights is a part of the heritage of Amer­icans. But when something has been long established, people tend to forget the sources of it. Once established, practices tend to con­tinue to be followed, and people will forget the basis of them.

But the current confusion about rights and responsibilities has more direct causes also. There has been a general decline in the pre­cision of the use of language and a neglect in the teaching of logi­cal thinking. Thus, vague expres­sions of ideas and questionable practices may go unchallenged.

Reformers in America have found it practical to advance their pro­grams indirectly and to install them gradually. To accomplish this, they have employed the rhet­oric of tradition—which includes such words as rights and respon­sibilities—to promote their pro­grams which are profoundly anti-traditional. Collectivist, statist, and egalitarian ideas have been subtly advanced to replace the tra­ditional principles. This has been carried to the point where many Americans must feel that their rights come from the state, that their responsibilities are collec­tive, and that everybody is en­titled to a minimum of worldly goods, if not an equality with every other man.

There is confusion, too, about the relation of rights to responsi­bilities. Conservatives may have contributed more to this confusion than “liberals,” for they are given to asserting that rights entail du­ties and responsibilities. Since people tend to interpret assertions in terms of the prevailing ethos, the assertion may be taken to mean something quite different from what the conservative in­tended. Many people would no doubt interpret it to mean some­thing like this: We owe the state a great deal in return for the rights it has granted to us. In­deed, President Kennedy merely took the thought a step further and concluded that we should focus our whole attention upon duties and responsibilities to the state. Such a development I would interpret as a measure of our gen­eral confusion about rights and responsibilities today.

Some Vital Questions

It is a difficult undertaking to find the remains of the American tradition beneath the luxurious growth of rights and responsi­bilities which now obscure it. Rather than attempt to do that, it will be more profitable to go back in time and try to reconstruct the tradition historically. Some questions will serve to guide us in this task, namely: What was the American tradition of rights and responsibilities? What was the source of rights? Of respon­sibilities? Within the tradition, what was the relationship between rights and responsibilities? What were the rights which men claimed? What were the responsi­bilities? What was the relation­ship of governments to these rights? Did they grant them, rec­ognize them, protect them? By what practices were rights pro­tected? With what sanctions were responsibilities promoted?

Most of these questions about rights, so far as they involve ideas, have been answered with the utmost brevity in the Declara­tion of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evi­dent, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Cre­ator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….

Of course, there is much more to a tradition than felicitous phras­ing in an honored document. A tradition is a body of practices, habits, customs, and institutions which may be buttressed by be­liefs and ideas. Yet we can only write about it in terms of ideas, so it may be well to approach the tradition of rights and responsi­bilities from the vantage point of ideas.

There have been many phras­ings of the rights which Ameri­cans believed were theirs. Jeffer­son’s “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” is the best known but not necessarily the most apt. Not only are the words not defined but also some of the phraseology is exceedingly vague, laying it open to a great variety of inter­pretations. For example, what does it mean that one has a “right to life”? It is possible to inter­pret the phrase in the following manner. In order to live, one has to have the means of livelihood, i.e., food, shelter, clothing, and so forth. The right to life could be interpreted as a claim upon someone to provide the means of livelihood. The “right to the pur­suit of happiness” is so vague that it could be used to justify any licentious pursuit that the most debauched person might dream up.

Life, Liberty, and Property

We know, of course, that these were not the meanings intended by those who subscribed to the sentiments in the Declaration of Independence. The whole ethos of the time as it can be discovered in the writings and documents which remain indicate that something quite different was meant. The usual way of summing up the rights which men believed they possessed was the “right to life, liberty and property.” The Massa­chusetts Declaration of Rights, drawn by John Adams, spells out the meaning which most men of the time would have attached to the words quoted from the Decla­ration of Independence:

All men are born free and inde­pendent, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights, among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness. (1)

Jefferson defined liberty at one time in such a way that there should be no doubt as to his mean­ing:

Of liberty then I would say that, in the whole plentitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will, but rightful liberty is un­obstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add “within the limits of the law,” because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of an individual. (2)

In short, the right to liberty is the right to think, say, and do what we will so long as we do not trespass upon the right of others to do likewise. Happiness, to these men, was the state of enjoying their liberties and the fruits of their labor (for which “property” was a convenient shorthand ex­pression). John Adams suggested additional content to the word “happiness,” content which others of his contemporaries may or may not have concurred in:

“All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue…. If there is a form of government, then, whose principle and foundation is virtue, will not every sober man acknowl­edge it better calculated to pro­mote the general happiness than any other form?” (3)

No Claim Against Anyone Else

It should be clear from the fore­going that these rights did not establish a positive claim on any­one. On the contrary, they require only that other men respect them and that government protect the citizenry from trespass upon their rights. The point can be made more emphatically by investigat­ing the sources of these rights. They were, as the above quota­tions indicate, conceived of as natural rights, as God-given, as subsisting in the nature of the universe. They were in no sense grants of governments nor be­quests of states.

When the Founding Fathers said that man had a right to life, they meant that no one else had a claim on his life, that he was born free and independent. His right to life was his right to do with it as he would, to cherish and nourish it, to dispose of his time and energies as he saw fit. In practice, as modified by tradi­tion, it meant that a man came to the fullness of enjoyment of his rights when he reached an age of maturity. But before that, no one might take the life of another.

The corollary of this proposi­tion is that no one has a natural claim upon the life of another. It follows, then, that the right to life cannot be the right to a livelihood, if it involves any claim upon someone to provide it. For such a claim would be at the expense of another man’s right to the use of his life.

The natural rights theory has been the subject of much contro­versy over the years. Indeed, the theory has now been obscured by the confusion resulting from the controversies. Those who have op­posed the validity of this theory have usually argued on the as­sumption that the belief in nat­ural rights is based upon the his­torical existence of a “state of nature,” and that in this state of nature men enjoyed certain nat­ural rights.

Now there is no doubt that writers in the eighteenth century frequently referred to a state of nature. There should be consider­able doubt that they were refer­ring to an actual historical condi­tion. The historical mode of rea­soning, which is most common nowadays, was rarely, if ever, em­ployed in the eighteenth century. This mode only came into its own after the publication of the works of Marx and Darwin, among others. The Founders were think­ing in terms of an enduring con­dition, not one that is basically changed by the passage of time. True, some writers did attach the “state of nature” to primitive man, but this is an accidental con­nection rather than an essential one, if one is employing a philo­sophical rather than an historical mode of reasoning. The “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” to which Jefferson refers, are obvi­ously a permanent part of the uni­verse. They do not await the con­firmation of anthropologists; they are something discoverable in the here and now by the employment of reason. In short, natural rights, to these men, were those rights which one has by nature.

Unalienable Rights

To demonstrate, let us recon­struct their mode of reasoning. Who has the right to the life of a man? Who could have gained such a title? Surely no other man has it. Who could have given him such a title? Can one man possess the life of another? Societies can and have conferred such titles, of course, but they are fraudulent, according to the natural rights theory. A man’s life is his in trust; not even he may sell it in its entirety. His right to life is “unalienable.” Would anyone real­ly care to argue otherwise today?

Or take a related question. Who has the right to the fruits of the labor of a man? Would not any man possessed of common sense conclude that that which he has produced with his own hands from his own materials is his? Whose else could it be? Property rights, properly worked out, are only so­cial means for enforcing this in­dividual right.

In the same manner, who can have a right to the use of the fac­ulties of a man, to his liberty? Will it be argued that they really belong to someone else? Can such a right really be conferred by society or the state? The very nature of man proclaims other­wise: He alone can will the use of his faculties and bring them into constructive use. True, a man may be induced by coercion to use his faculties against his “will,” but who could legitimately claim a prior right to do this? These rights bear no necessary connec­tion to any real or imagined con­dition of savages. The introduc­tion of anthropological findings into the discussion of natural rights has only served to confuse the issues. The source of the rights, as conceived within the American tradition, was concisely stated by John Adams:

I say RIGHTS, for such they have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government—Rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws—Rights derived from the great Legislator of the universe. (4)

Nonetheless, governments were believed by the Founders to be capable of serving useful func­tions regarding natural rights. In­deed, Jefferson tells us that gov­ernments are created for the ex­press purpose of protecting and defending these rights. In this sense, it could well be said that governments are ordained of God. If there were no governments, the individual would frequently be un­able to defend his life, liberty, and property. He would be at the mercy of stronger individuals and of bands of men who might de­spoil him and his. Thus, it is in the true interest of every man that governments be instituted to maintain law and order, to pro­tect life and property, to punish the trespass of some upon others.

Natural Responsibilities of Man

Elaborate theories of “natural responsibilities” did not usually accompany presentations of nat­ural rights theories. One might conclude from this that Ameri­cans placed a great deal more em­phasis upon rights than upon re­sponsibilities. I think, however, that such conclusions are not warranted. As they conceived them, responsibilities are but the op­posite side of the coin on which rights are inscribed, no more sep­arable than is a single coin. It would even be possible to con­struct a theory of “natural re­sponsibilities” which would be in keeping with what Americans be­lieved and did. I propose to do so here.

What are the natural responsi­bilities of a man? First, he is re­sponsible for his own acts. Even if coerced, he alone could have released the energy and directed the efforts which consummated a deed. Second, a man is naturally responsible for his own well-being, responsible for providing himself with the comforts of life. He is equipped, by nature, with sensa­tions which inform him of his needs and with faculties which en­able him to satisfy these needs. Third, a man is responsible for fulfilling the terms of any con­tract he enters into. Thus, if a man marries, he incurs knowing­ly and willingly an obligation to care for his wife in a manner be­fitting his position and abilities. Fourth, he becomes responsible for any children he and his wife have brought into the world, to nurture them until they have reached an age when they can be­come independent. Nothing could be more natural than that those who have been responsible for producing life should care for it during the period when it cannot fend for itself. Fifth, he has some responsibilities to the society which has provided a framework within which he can use his fac­ulties for his own ends and for the fulfillment of his obligations. John Adams put the matter in this way:

Each individual of the society has a right to be protected by it in the enjoyment of his life, liberty, and property, according to standing laws. He is obliged, consequently, to con­tribute his share to the expense of this protection, and to give his per­sonal service, or an equivalent, when necessary. (5)

These responsibilities, it may be noted, bear a demonstrable and complementary relation to the rights set forth above. If a man has the right to the use of his faculties, he is responsible for the manner in which he uses them. His right to his life embraces the responsibility for caring for him­self and his own so that he exerts no claim on another man’s time. It might be added that since he has unwittingly claimed the time of his parents he has incurred some obligation to them. Since by nature they will probably live into their declining years, he should be obliged to look after them during the period of their senility. Since government exists to protect a man’s rights, he is responsible for maintaining it in its perform­ance of this function. Military service in defense against aggres­sors is an obvious obligation of a man. These responsibilities rein­force rather than diminish the rights claimed earlier. It is true that a tax for the support of gov­ernments and armies will take some portion of the fruits of the labor of a man. But if government contents itself with its protective function, the amount of the dimi­nution should be small and the advantage of the protection would more than make up for the loss.

Moral Obligations

What of numerous other respon­sibilities which might be named? Are there not “neighborhood effects” of a man’s action? Should not a man contribute to the edu­cation of other men’s children? Are there not moral obligations to help the needy, to support churches, to contribute to those who have been victimized by some natural catastrophe, to care for widows and orphans, and so forth? Perhaps these are moral obliga­tions. Many of us believe that they are. But by bringing them up for discussion, I have crossed the line from natural rights and responsi­bilities to moral obligations and duties. If there is to be a distinc­tion between the legal and the moral realm, this line must not be transgressed by law. In the Amer­ican tradition, natural rights were something to be protected by law. Natural responsibilities could also be enforced by law, though this was not always the case. In them­selves, these rights and responsi­bilities were believed to be moral, but they did not begin to embrace the whole moral realm.

If pressed to deal with this dis­tinction, many men at the time of the making of the American tradition would probably have said that beyond the realm of the nat­ural lies the supernatural, beyond the physical lies the metaphysical, beyond reason there is revelation. But this region “beyond” is a matter for religion, a matter for the individual conscience, a mat­ter for a man and his intimate relationship to his God. It would be presumptuous for human beings to legislate about such matters. To protect a man in his natural rights and to hold him to his natural responsibilities is but to free men for the assumption of their obligations and duties as they shall choose. But to impose these moral obligations and duties by law would be to strip them of their morality for the individ­ual by removing the element of choice. It is one of the curious anomalies of our time that the courts which have been so assidu­ous of late in protecting children from hearing the Bible read have been not at all concerned about governmental forcing of someone’s ideas about our moral duties to other people’s children, to other people’s parents, to people in other countries, upon us. The Supreme Court strains at gnats and swal­lows camels. Its piddling decisions about separating church and state ignore the massive imposition of people’s notions of morality upon us.

Governments Restricted

There were numerous Ameri­can habits, customs, documents, and institutions which indicate that the above ideas did inform the tradition of rights and respon­sibilities. Since the rights claimed were natural rights, they needed no positive enactments of law to confer them. There was the dan­ger, however, that the govern­ments created to protect these rights would usurp them. Thus, governments were prohibited by the various constitutions from in­vading the rights of Americans. The Bill of Rights is an example of this at the national level, and state constitutions usually con­tained similar features. Property was protected by requiring pay­ment and due process of law for its alienation from an individual. Life and liberty were protected by numerous safeguards also. The enumeration of the powers of the various branches of government was an attempt to restrict the ac­tivities of government to those functions deemed desirable for the protection of life, liberty, and property. Negro slavery, which certainly ran counter to this whole philosophy, was in time abolished, and the rights of Everyman were secured in America. Such a state­ment ignores many violations and usurpations of the rights of indi­viduals which undoubtedly oc­curred from time to time, but it would be true to say that these were exceptions to the rule.

Voluntarily Assumed Obligations

Responsibilities were quite often not imposed by law. In the nineteenth century, wars were usually fought with volunteers. The opinion of the community was quite often sufficient to impel men, who might otherwise have evaded them, to the living up to their responsibilities. It was expected that parents would feed and clothe their children, educate them for­mally or otherwise, prepare them for their lives as adults. It was expected that the children would look after aged, disabled, or desti­tute parents, that relatives would provide for widows and orphans, that the community come to the aid of those who could not sup­port themselves and were with­out relatives to help them. Houses were often large in an earlier America, and it was not unusual for a family to take in maiden aunts and disabled relatives. Char­ity was extended voluntarily to those in need on a large scale, as I have shown elsewhere.

Such was the American tradi­tion of rights and responsibilities. But, as I indicated at the begin­ning of this article, the ideas have come unsprung from their context and practices have been cut loose from the tradition. Americans still speak of rights. Indeed, there seems to be no end to the rights which they claim. One does not hear much any more of the right to life, liberty, and property (especially, not property), but there is a great deal of talk about the right to work, to strike, to equal treatment from everyone, to a decent wage, to a comfortable home, to medical care, to an edu­cation, to security in old age, to protection from unemployment, and to all sorts of goods and serv­ices.

There are new responsibilities, too: to the state, to the world, to the community, to the school, to the tax collector, to labor, to farm­ers, to the “underprivileged,” to the armed forces. By the same token, older responsibilities have been sloughed off. The Public Welfare Department will look after aged parents with tax moneys. The community will educate the children, if it can’t get federal aid. A man need not take too seri­ously his responsibility to provide for himself and his own; if he fails, he will be buoyed up by un­employment compensation, social security, and prepared for other work by retraining programs. All of this is supported by taxation, of course.

It should be abundantly clear that these new “rights” and “re­sponsibilities” are not natural in their origin. Instead, they must be provided by the state. In order to provide them, the state must curtail property rights, diminish the right of a man to the fruits of his labor, and undercut the basis of independence upon which the exercise of rights depends. Moreover, the state can only pro­vide these “rights” by increasing its powers greatly. Since there is no natural (or reasonable) basis for these new “rights,” the result is the augmentation of power which is then used arbitrarily—in short, oppression.

Latter-Day Rights

Although these latter-day rights and responsibilities have no nat­ural basis, they do have a foun­dation of sorts. They are founded upon an ideology. In effect, this means that they are the creations of intellectuals. They are based upon what some intellectuals think should be, rather than what is. These men are the only ones privy to their motives. For aught we know, they may have the best of intentions. Confusion is wide­spread, and there is little evidence that many intellectuals are not victims of it also. They may be fully convinced that their new creations are “rights.” At any rate, they have used the tradi­tional rhetoric to advance them. Most of them have accepted the notion that the theory of natural rights has been discredited, but they have relied upon the tradi­tional belief in rights to advance their own. Modern intellectuals are not noted for their piety, but they have appealed to sentiment and morality to get public ac­ceptance of their programs.

But let us not play with words longer. There is no right to strike, no right to an education, no right to employment, no right to medi­cal care, no right to decent hous­ing, and no other right which man can create at will. Insofar as these things are provided, they are gov­ernmentally granted privileges. They are privileges granted at the expense of the rights of men. Nat­ural rights could be a part of the tradition of Americans because they stem from the nature of hu­man existence and most men would believe them, or act upon them, if they had never heard of a theory of natural rights. A little child knows that if he has made something with his hands, it is his. On the contrary, it takes great ingenuity by thinkers and widespread confusion for people to be convinced that the fruit of the labor of others is theirs. Un­doubtedly, the complexity of mod­ern economies may make such con­fusion easier. But the strange conclusions are the work of in­tellectuals, not simply the product of complexity.

Unreasonable Assumptions

In like manner, the new “re­sponsibilities” have to be dinned into our ears constantly, in the hope that we will accept them. It is easy for a man to understand that he is responsible for nurtur­ing a child that he has fathered, but he cannot readily see that he is responsible for suffering in Vietnam. There is a reason for this difficulty. Most of us are not responsible for the suffering in Vietnam, or anywhere else in the world. The bread that we eat did not come from their fields. The clothes that we wear were not made in their mills. If they are hungry, our fullness did not create it. In short, each of us is not re­sponsible for all of us, and all of us are not responsible for each of us. Such conceptions of re­sponsibility cannot stand the light of reason; they prosper only in the darkness produced by the heavy cloud of confusion.

The American tradition of rights and responsibilities could stand close examination. It was based upon realities that were and are close to everyone, reali­ties that are either timeless or unlikely to change. Government-granted privileges and imposed duties and obligations are the figments of fertile imaginations, word covers for a thrust to power, whatever the intentions of those who have advanced them. They are temporary things, existing at the whim of legislators and ad­ministrators. On the other side of the cloud of confusion, if we persist in wandering through it, lies an age-old tyranny.


The next article in this series will treat “Of Virtue and Morality.”



1. The Political Writings of John Ad­ams, George A. Peek, Jr., ed. (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1954), p. 96.

2. The Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Edward Dumbauld, ed. (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1955), p. 55.

3. Peek, op. cit., p. 85.

4. Ibid., pp. 4-5.

5. Ibid., pp. 98-99.

Clarence B. Carson was a frequent contributor to THE FREEMAN, and was Professor of History at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.

Used with the permission of the Foundation for Economic Education.

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