The Difference Between Rights and Liberty

The other day in a social media setting, I posed a question about “rights” and what would be the ramifications of the oft-repeated assertion that “rights come from God.”  If this is so (and I believe it is), then would not “rights” only consist of those things that are allowed or mandated by the Scripture?

Generally speaking, there is quite a bit of confusion about “rights” and “liberty” in the West, and in the United States in particular since the US explicitly centered its rhetorical framework around these terms from the very start.  However, what has been lost in the ensuing two-and-a-half centuries of discussion has been the very important distinction between these two concepts.  Because they are so commonly used together in print and in speech, they have become confounded in a way that now often makes them antithetical to the original intentions behind their use.

But first, some definitions are in order.

Rights – rights are privileges which are bestowed by a sovereign which grant to the bearer a legal, moral, or presumptive claim to that which is defined by the right in question.

Liberties – liberties are those things which are allowed to the one exercising them because authorities (of whatever sort) refrain from exercising coercion, restraint, or interference.

Now, for the more conventional conservatives out there, alarm bells probably started ringing when they read the phrase, “rights are privileges which are bestowed by a sovereign.”   After all, every good American supporter of the Constitution knows that “government doesn’t give us rights!”  In this they are correct – but that’s where the necessary fact of “rights coming from God” comes into play – a higher Sovereign than mere earthly government.  Without that acknowledgement, then there is no rational basis for an origin of rights.  This has been the great failure of the many variations upon the theory of natural rights which attempt to circumvent the Sovereign of the universe and base a claim for “rights” in purely secular constructions of natural law.  If God did not give us inalienable rights, then no one did.  Any claim to them becomes an exercise in personal opinion.  Without an Arbiter who will ultimately sort all things out and set them aright as He sees fit, including the punishment of violations of the rights He bestows, there is nothing that ultimately serves as a guarantor of last resort.  In a purely secular rights framework, you can assert that you have a “right” all you want, and I can assert that you don’t, and who’s going to prove differently?  There’s no way you can decisively press your case in a non-violent or non-coercive fashion.

However, rights don’t come for free.  As I pointed out in the follow-up discussion on my social media post, the concept of “rights” carries with it associated responsibilities.  A right was granted by a sovereign, who then expected that the responsibilities imposed or implied by that right would be met.  This concept derives from the medieval origins of modern rights theory, which themselves stemmed from the Germanic understanding of “right” (the term originates the old Germanic, and comes to us in English through Anglo-Saxon through Old and Middle English).  A right carries an obligation.  A feeholder had the right to his land, and in return was obligated to serve his lord in battle.  A city might be granted trade rights or “free” status by a king or republican council, and in return the city exercised its economic and trade prowess in service to the sovereign power.

So it is with our natural rights.  They were granted by God, and are to be used in His service.  A quick and easy way of sorting out what is and isn’t a right can be had by appealing to the Scriptures.

For instance, Scripture includes the Lord Jesus’ commandment to sell a garment and buy a sword for self-defence (Luke 22:36), and in the Old Testament there was the correlative legal stipulation that defending one’s home and life when mortal danger was presented was permissible and that “no blood would be shed” for a robber found breaking in (Exodus 22:2).  Hence, there is a scriptural basis for the right to keep and bear arms and for the right to self-defence.  these are “rights” in the genuine sense of the term.   Further, in the nation of Israel, the body of the people were clearly organised for warfare and the defence of the nation along tribal militia lines, which provides a further justification for the right of the people to live under arms as a militia of armed freemen (i.e. civic republicanism’s notion of a universal militia).

The right to a fair trial and a trial by one’s peers is shown in the Old Testament laws about requiring fairness in witnesses and further inquiries by citizen judges (i.e. even when you had “two or three” witnesses testifying to the same thing, the judge still was required to inquire into the truth of their witness – Deuteronomy 19:18).  The right to own and use private property is shown in the laws proscribing theft and covetousness.  There is a good general case to be made for economic liberty stemming from the personal enjoyment and development of private property (though this seems to be more on a distributionist vein than a libertarian capitalistic model). So on and so forth.

The corollary to this, however, is that some of the things which are referred to as “rights” in the West are not actually so.

For instance, is there a “right” to freedom of worship, or to no worship at all?  No, there is not.  God grants to us the right to worship Him as His Word says – and that’s it.  We have a responsibility before Him to do so.  There is no “right” to be a Muslim or an atheist.  Similarly, because it is directly contrary to numerous portions of Scripture, there is also no “right” to engage in homosexual activity.  Further, there is obviously no “right” to gay marriage and other elements of the homosexualist agenda.

So am I saying that we should revert to a theocracy or that we should stone homosexuals on sight?

No.  This is where the concept of “liberties” comes into play.  As noted above, “liberty” exists when a governing authority refrains from interference in the actions of an individual or group.  This notion of liberty is certainly very important within a pluralistic and consensual political system, but I would argue that it is also relevant even to monarchical or oligarchic systems, for a variety of pragmatic (though not “natural law”) reasons, not least of which is the fact that by extending liberty to others, even those with whom we disagree, we can set the stage for reciprocity from them.  This is what happens in a well-ordered and well-reasoned state.  Hence, while Hindus, Buddhists, etc. do not have a “right” to worship their false gods, we can reasonably extend them the liberty to do so because we wish to maintain a social system in which we ourselves are allowed to exercise our genuine right to worship God according to the Scripture without hindrance from government (indeed, this was the main argument for religious toleration and liberty during the founding era).  Likewise, the various denominations that fall under the broad label of “Christianity” ought to grant to each other the liberty to interpret the Scriptures as they see fit.  Persuasion and dissuasion come through the use of reasoning and rhetoric.

The basis of this concept of liberties also stems from God – in this case, from the fact that He will be the final arbiter.  In this age, the government is not given the function or role of arbitrating doctrine or practice, so the enforcement of Christian orthodoxy falls solely to the churches, and that within their own assemblies, enforced through church discipline.  Therefore, when we grant liberty even to those who are doing wrong, it is with the implied assumption that their wrongdoing will still be called into account before God, even if we ourselves are not doing it through the mechanism of the earthly sword.

Of course, the modern Left – progressives, SJWs, cultural Marxists, and the like – refuse to grant that sort of liberty to Christians and others to enjoy the actual bona fide rights we have from God, so the time will probably come when we must refuse them the liberty to do as they themselves wish, for our own self-protection if nothing else.  The extension of liberty requires a level of maturity and social grace which the Left has simply itself incapable of exhibiting.  Today’s radical Left, in its ideological lust for power over others, removes from itself all reasonable claims it might have to liberty for itself in a neo-Traditionalist or other restorationist system which might arise in the future.


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