I am sorry, natural rights libertarians, but there is no such thing as an inherent, or natural, right. The notion that by virtue of being human, rights are given to us by our Creator, is, just as it sounds, religious and metaphysical hogwash and no base on which to organize society. For too long has the libertarian movement been stuck with, and plagued by, this ancient misconception. And while the sentiment might have been a hit with conservative Christians in the past, it has no place in a secular society if we libertarians want to stay relevant.
Because let’s face it. Rights are social constructs. They exist only in the human mind, not in the physical realm in which they are manifested—or at least, there is no possible way to prove it. They are conventions that can be, and frequently are, changed or added to if need be. The notion of “rights” is completely meaningless unless these rights are adhered to or enforced.
For example, while the “natural right” to free speech has long been regarded as self-evident and sacrosanct (and still is to a very large degree, to the frustration of the online liberals that try so hard to silence everyone with whom they might disagree) in much of Western society, the same cannot be said of China, where censorship of journalists, bloggers, and concerned citizens is commonplace.
The natural rights advocate would argue that the Chinese government is violating the rights of its citizens. This sounds like a fair enough statement. But do the citizens of China actually have a right to free speech? Evidently not. Such a right is not enforced, and thus, it does not exist. Should the citizens of China have a right to free speech? I would certainly argue so.
But there is a huge difference between what is and what ought to be. And this is where the natural rights advocates get it wrong, fundamentally. They continuously fail to give a satisfactory answer to the question of how and why natural rights are objective, inherent, inalienable—and whatever other fancy words that may be used to describe aforementioned rights.
Often times, the answer to a question such as “From where do natural rights come?” will be something along the lines of “They are given to us by virtue of being human,” or “They are given to us by our Creator.” But neither of these retorts actually do the job of answering the question. The first fails to answer who gives us these rights, and the second should come across as absurd by any rational, thinking individual.
So what is a secular libertarian to do, then? The answer is simple. Accept rights for what they actually are, and always have been; social constructs. Hell, even if you are not secular yourself, and actually do believe that rights come from our Creator, I would encourage you to at least present this view as one of several libertarian rights theories in arguments about libertarianism with people who do not share your religious beliefs.
Like mentioned earlier, rights only exist insofar as they are enforced. (To be pedantic, they can still be conceived of even if they are not enforced—but so can flying pigs, and those don’t exist in reality. Unenforced rights are, much like flying pigs, just thoughts and ideas.) They are social constructs, often upheld by the government—but that does not imply they have to be upheld by the government. It is perfectly imaginable that a charity organization such as Doctors Without Borders could enforce the right to healthcare in war-torn countries. Or that a religious institution could enforce the homeless’s rights to food and shelter. And to be sure, this is what a lot of nonlibertarians mean when they say we should have a right to X or Y; not necessarily that the government should rob Peter to pay for Paul’s right to X or Y.
Furthermore, from the fact that natural rights do not exist does not logically follow that all rights are equally good or important. It is, for example, perfectly possible to argue for exclusive property rights without invoking the natural rights argument. In fact, both paleolibertarian Hans-Hermann Hoppe in his book A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, and Joseph S. Diedrich writing for Center for a Stateless Society, a left-libertarian think tank, argue that private property is only necessary and of value because it is the best, or perhaps even the only way to avoid conflict in a world where resources are scarce.
Such arguments are surely more effective when trying to persuade others of the necessity of exclusive property rights, than the natural rights argument is. Not only is it more intellectually rigorous, but it also does not reinforce the stereotype that libertarians are dogmatic in their beliefs.
I would like to conclude with a quote by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham:
That which has no existence cannot be destroyed—that which cannot be destroyed cannot require anything to preserve it from destruction. Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense—nonsense upon stilts.