In this new essay in the Excursions series, George H. Smith begins an extended look at the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence.
Inalienable (or unalienable) rights were regarded as fundamental corollaries of man’s nature, especially his reason and volition, so these rights could never be surrendered or transferred to another person (including a government), even with the agent’s consent. A man can no more transfer his inalienable rights than he can transfer his moral agency, his ability to reason, and so forth. This means that inalienable rights could never have been transferred to government in a social contract, so no government can properly claim jurisdiction over them.
This argument from inalienable rights was important because of an ambiguity in traditional social contract theory. The social contract was more of a theoretical construct than a historical reality, so disagreements inevitably raged over which rights had been delegated to government and which rights had not. After all, no legitimate complaint can be made about the violation of a right if a government has gained proper jurisdiction over that right in the social contract. Government, for instance, cannot function without money, so the transfer of a minimal amount of property to government, collected in the form of taxes, was commonly seen as the prime example of a right that has been alienated in a social contract.
Aaron Ross Powell a research fellow at the Cato Institute and editor of Libertarianism.org. Keep up with Aaron by following him on Facebook: