I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. -- Thomas Jefferson

Monday, February 1, 2010

Homeschooling Political Philosophy:
Natural Rights – “We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident…”

This blog is about homeschooling, not politics, but, of course, learning about political systems, political thought, etc. is a necessary and important part of a serious education.

For that reason, I want to mention a fellow homeschooler’s essays on the natural-rights principles that are the basis of the Declaration of Independence and that were central to the founding of the American republic (see her section titled “The Proper Role of Government, My commentary as I study his article”: the essays are written from an LDS perspective) and also to expand further on her comments.

There is a tendency nowadays to view “natural rights” as simply a fuzzy rhetorical flourish used by the Founders to justify their breaking away from Britain.

The Founders, specifically Jefferson, did not see it that way: they thought they were actually describing some important, central, objective facts about human life and the nature of government.

I think they were right.

I despise fuzzy thinking, and I certainly would not put it past even the Founders (who were, after all, politicians) to engage in political propaganda.

But, the principles of natural rights did not in fact simply advance the interests of the Founders: for example, as Jefferson himself recognized, slavery stands condemned as a horrendous crime from a natural-rights perspective. Jefferson and the other slaveholders among the Founders were faced with that uncomfortable fact when they advocated natural rights.

There is also a tendency nowadays to view “natural rights” as simply an old-fashioned religious concept, inappropriate to our modern secular age.

Again, the Founders disagreed.

Of course, anyone who believes in God will believe that everything from natural rights to quarks and neutron stars are, ultimately, due to God.

But, the Founders came from a wide variety of religious perspectives, ranging from evangelical Christians to deists or agnostics: they did not find that their religious differences impeded their common understanding of the concept of natural rights.

The idea of natural rights is not specific to any particular religious tradition.

The natural-rights perspective is in fact based on a careful, systematic analysis of the nature of human action that combines abstract logic with a keen awareness of the realities of human history.

Most of us homeschoolers are rightly reluctant to get into the typical Republican vs. Democrat, liberal vs. conservative “flame wars.”

But, in various conversations with other homeschoolers, I am seeing an increasing interest in the broader philosophical issue of natural rights. Aside from the essay I linked to above, a homeschooling friend recently recommended to me Bastiat's classic The Law, and I think there is also a growing interest among homeschoolers in understanding the underpinnings of the Founders' thinking.

That interest among homeschoolers is, I think, not only understandable, but vital. I’ll go into this in more detail in future posts, but I’ll mention here some basic sources from which one can learn about the concept of natural rights..

One of the best-known sites on the Web that consistently advocates natural rights is LewRockwell.com. The Mises Institute is the best site both for serious, scholarly work from a natural-rights perspective, as well as for popular introductions, commentary on current events, etc.

The novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand wrote two essays that succinctly summarized the classical natural-rights perspective: “The Nature of Government” and “Man’s Rights.” (I do not entirely agree with Rand’s political perspective, and I disagree strongly with some of her current followers, but these essays do very clearly present the classical limited-government version of the natural-rights perspective.)

My own views on natural rights come largely from an economics perspective (I considered majoring in economics, and actually had an offer to do a post-doc in econ after I got my Ph.D. in physics). The single greatest influence on me was the late economist Murray Rothbard – see, e.g., his books Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays, The Ethics of Liberty, and For a New Liberty.

Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience is generally remembered for its anti-militarism and its emphasis on the importance of individual conscience, but it is in fact a passionate, humane, and readable defense of the natural-rights philosophy, which emphasizes the danger that any government poses to individual rights. Thoreau’s opening declaration could well serve as the motto for defenders of natural rights:
I HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, — "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — "That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government is the classical formulation of the idea of natural rights (although the basic concept of natural rights originated among the radical Protestants of the English Civil War such as Roger Williams, John Lilburne, and the heroic Anne Hutchinson, and the idea has roots in the Middle Ages and ultimately in Classical civilization).

Locke is difficult reading for those of us educated in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries, but anyone seriously interested in natural rights or the founding of the United States ultimately has to read it.

Most of the sources I have linked to above are available online, though I would recommend getting hard copies of Locke's Second Treatise and Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty.

Isn't this an awful lot to read?

Well, yes. But spread out over the course of the middle-school and high-school years, it really is not that burdensome.

After all, learning math, from arithmetic through calculus, requires a lot of reading, too. And, any reasonable study of English and American literature requires thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of pages of reading.

Isn't it possible to read just one or two of the essays or books I have linked to above?

Well... yeah, just as it is possible to read one play by Shakespeare and one book by Dickens and declare that you have finished English literature.

But, you're fooling yourself.

Any serious education involves the study of history and of human nature. The idea of natural rights is central to the history of our own country, and, the Founders believed, central to understanding both history in the broader sense and the nature of human beings.

The Founders were, I think, correct.

If the idea of natural rights is central, as the Founders thought it was, to understanding human nature, history, economics, and politics, then it merits serious and sustained study. It is not a topic that one should try to briefly “slip in” to one's schooling, as one might “slip in” origami or basket-weaving if you and your child happen to have some spare time (nothing wrong with either origami or basket-weaving – but neither are essential parts of a serious education).

In all honesty, I think a firm understanding of natural rights does require reading, at the very least, all of the essays and books I have listed above.

Locke and Thoreau are, of course, the most demanding of these, but they are also key historical documents that any educated person must read: unfortunately, they are not likely to be required reading nowadays even at good universities, so it is important to include them in your homeschooling. Rand's essays are quite brief, and Rothbard's books are quite readable.

Am I then suggesting that kids should learn about the idea of natural rights only in middle school or high school?

No. The Founders expected ordinary people to grasp the references to natural rights in the Declaration of Independence. The basic concept is not difficult: natural rights are those rights human beings possess automatically by nature, granted neither by other human beings nor by any rulers or any government.

To give a concrete example, humans can, after birth, normally breathe on their own. Normally, breathing is therefore a natural right. On the other hand, humans are not automatically provided by nature with free health care: therefore, free health care is not a natural right.

The distinction is straightforward and obvious: even a child in early grade school can grasp it.

Why this distinction matters, what it implies about the nature of politics, economics, history, etc. – all of that cannot be fully grasped by a first-grader, of course. But we tell first-graders that the earth moves around the sun, even though they cannot yet grasp Kepler's laws of planetary motion. A similar point applies to teaching the idea of natural rights.

Further along, as a student learns history, economics, etc., the idea of natural rights should be deepened and used to illuminate those other subjects.

In short, reading Locke, Thoreau, etc. when the student is older should be not the first introduction to the idea of natural rights, but rather an opportunity to see how the idea was created and fully developed historically.

Of course, the concept of natural rights, and its centrality in the thought of the American Founders, has pretty much disappeared from American education, so that even highly educated adults in contemporary America do not generally understand natural rights as well as the average farmer in the era of the American founding.

So, as is so often the case for us homeschoolers, educating our kids necessarily starts with educating ourselves – i.e., if you have not read the sources I listed above, you have a bit of reading to do before you can help your child understand the principles that lie at the foundation of our country.

Is it worth the trouble? Yes – if you want your kids to have a solid grounding in history, economics, and the founding principles of our country.