Machan's Musings - What Does "Unalienable" Mean?

removed's picture
Submitted by removed on Tue, 2006-01-17 09:43

It would really be extremely valuable for today’s children to understand what is meant for a right to be unalienable. But it isn’t likely they will be taught about this much in today’s school—from elementary to graduate ones, in fact. That’s because, if they realized that the American Founders understood every individual to have unalienable rights to, among other things, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, they would begin to wonder, well, how is it that their city, country, state, or federal governments fail to heed this fact.

For a right to be unalienable means it cannot be lost by a human being, unless his or her humanity itself has been lost. So, for example, if a person no longer can be conscious as a rational being—is brain  dead—that would suffice to alienate his or her rights, but short of that nothing will do.

The implication of this is extremely important and would disturb most of those who teach about government—in publicly funded schools! For to expropriate those funds, the right to property, even to one’s life or liberty, must be alienated (unless one freely chooses to provide the needed funds). “Unalienable” means, however, that one’s rights to life, liberty, property and whatever else qualifies as a basic right may never be violated—by no one at all, certainly not by one’s government, not one with full democratic support.

The idea of the American Founder was to make clear that governments exist to secure these rights, may not be violated even in carrying out that task itself. That’s why cops are bound by due process even as they deal with a suspect in a very serious crime. That is why there is so much fuss about eavesdropping on unsuspecting citizens, or in detaining human beings without due process. Those concerns are the faint echoes today of the idea that everyone, by virtue of being a human being, has unalienable rights.

Some would retort that, surely, once a majority has decided we must all pay for innumerable public projects—which are rarely public, by the way, but rather serve the interest of some sizable private group—those rights no longer bar government from interfering with our lives, liberties, property, and so forth. But that is dead wrong—the point of observing that the basic rights are unalienable is to make it clear that no one, not even some huge majority, may violate them.

Perhaps not even the American Founders fully understood the radical implication of affirming the fact that we all have these unalienable rights. I confess I am mystified that they didn’t see clearly that some of the powers they conferred upon government contradict, flat out, the fact that our rights are unalienable. Government, for example, may not rob us of our liberty and our life, by means of depriving us of the fruits of these through taxes or other takings. Your right to your life and liberty cannot mean anything if you can be conscripted to serve others, if the fruits of your work may be taken from you by force, without your permission.

It is true that by becoming or being a citizen of a country one commits oneself to, say, taking part in the pursuit of justice—so giving testimony where it is the only means to serve justice is something one implicitly consents to do. But this is no alienation of one’s rights, anymore than when one weds one’s mate and says “I do,” and so pledges not to fool around with others. But that minimum commitment that is entailed by citizenship does not imply that rights may be alienated. Indeed, the commitment is itself an exercise of one’s right to liberty—one freely becomes or remains a citizen and that has certain consequences.

Ultimately, of course, much that most citizens in contemporary America take for granted, all the public works and entitlements, rest on denying that we have unalienable rights. Which is probably one reason this part of the Declaration of Independence receives scant attention in schools or in most discussions of public affairs. Yet that is precisely what made the Declaration such a revolutionary statement: it rejected the idea that we can be owned by anyone else but ourselves. Our lives, our labors, our properties belong to each of us, and to obtain them we must be asked and give our consent. 


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Machan's Musings - What Does "Unalienable" Mean?

Melior's picture

"My proof convinces the ignorant, and the wise man's proof convinces me. But he whose reasoning falls between wisdom and ignorance, I neither can convince him, nor can he convince me." - Kahlil Gibran 

Mr. Machan has asked, and tried to explain--I think: 'What does "Unalienable" mean?' 

My question is: "How can you define a word or term that does not exist?"  The word "unalienable" does not exist!--it is not in the dictionary.  The correct word is "inalienable"! 

I do not mean to criticize Mr. Machan. All I want to do is make him aware of the fact that we all suffer, to some degree or another, from what I call "SEMANTIC ILLITERACY"--and that is one of the key factors that the "Elsworth M. Toohey's" depend upon. 

I am grateful to Mr. Machan for showing me that there are some Libertarians who do have an appropriate social conscience--who realize that the community of their choice has to be recognized, and treated, as an extension of themselves and their families.  

If, when you read the "Wealth of Nations", and you are able to see what Adam Smith wrote between the lines, it is obvious that a "social conscience" is the automatic extension of the "invisible hand" that guides everyone. 

Thank you. 

I would appreciate hearing from Mr. Machan himself because I have a knowledge of UBC that the attendees of last year's objectivist gathering seem to be oblivious of, and I would like to discuss it with him. 

-JT

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