The question that should constantly be on our minds – “who owns you?” This is not a trivial question. It is a philosophical ‘fork in the road” for people who call themselves “libertarian” (note small “L”). The answer you give to it will mark you as either a Christian libertarian or an anarcho-libertarian. This well-done video is an excellent illustration of what we mean. Watch this closely and see if you can detect where it goes off the rails-
Did you notice that the video presents an either/or dichotomy in answer to the question? That’s pretty easy to see- self-evident, if you will. But did you notice that the “either/or” dichotomy presented is a false one? The only choices given are “me” and “someone else.” There’s a third choice and it’s the most important choice. The third choice brings the question into clear focus because it provides an answer to all of the “yes, but’s…” created by the two other choices. For instance the video asserts that “each person by virtue of being a human being has the absolute right to control his or her own body and remain free from outside interference [emphasis added].” The video then asserts that “our founding fathers believed that self-ownership was a self-evident truth” which leads to the idea that everyone has the “right” to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Yes, but… where in the writings of the founders or in the foundation of the founders1 can we find this idea of “self-ownership?” John Locke is quoted in the video… out of context… regarding self-ownership. Locke’s true view on this is important, central in fact, so we’ll expand on it in a moment.
Yes, but… it is asserted in the video that we possess “rights.” The 800-lb gorilla in the room then is “where do “rights” come from (especially the idea of “absolute rights”)?” Are rights merely the agreement of all people in a social contract? What if all don’t agree? What if a majority in one body-politic or another decide to exclude minority members of that body from the contract for one reason or another, for instance exclusion on the basis that they haven’t obtained “full personhood” status or once had but no longer meet the criteria for that status?
Yes, but…is the video’s claim of the founders’ philosophies even in the correct category regarding the “self-evident truth” found in the Declaration of Independence?
To make it clear, we believe that there is a vitally important third choice for the question “who owns you?” But it’s ignored by the video maker.
That answer is- God. Now if you choose God as the answer the “yes, buts…” disappear. To demonstrate that we’ll examine our “yes, but…” list in reverse order.
First- The founder’s philosophies of government were formed by reading theologians and philosophers like Calvin, Knox, Beza, Luther, Pufendorf, Ockham, Grotius, Augustine and, yes, John Locke among dozens of others. Note we said theologians and philosophers, the vast majority of them Christian. The self-evident truth held by the founders was not the “truth” of self-ownership, but the truth of “inalienable rights,” that is the belief that rights that are an intrinsic property of the individual. Sounds more or less the same doesn’t it?
That is, until you examine the origin of those rights, the gist of the second “yes, but…” In the philosophy touted in the video, rights are the sole result of the social contract- an agreement between the members of a particular body politic subject to whatever the majority decides the standards and boundaries of the contract might be. If you doubt this view the video at the Youtube website and read the comments on the video. Several of the video’s viewers are under the impression that “free” health care is a “right,” and that all be done to make it a “right” is convince enough members of the body-politic that it should be a right and- VOILA! A new “right” is created.
In the founders’ philosophy, inalienable rights are an endowment from the Creator- God. That philosophy does not deny that the social contract exists, but in the founders’ view the contract, properly formed, has an authority that it can’t have outside of an endowment of those rights by God. Men can band together and form a social contract for the protection of individual rights because they have, as the image-bearer of God, the right to protect and defend those individual rights collectively within preset boundaries and standards. And the God who endows those rights also sets those boundaries and standards on man’s rights. Thus the notion of the “absolute” right is swept away. Also swept away is the notion that certain individuals may be excluded from the social contract by the arbitrary agreement of the majority regarding the definition of “personhood.” That definition is in the hands of God and is not subject to human will and whim. Hence the inalienable right as the gift of an omnipotent and omniscient Creator.
We claimed that Locke was taken out of context. The video implies that Locke was an anarcho-libertarian but, in fact Locke was a Christian. There can be no doubt about this. Both of his Treatises on Civil Government- the source of the the quote on “self-ownership” is in the Second Treatise 2– and his The Reasonableness of Christianity are undeniably Christian in character, being argued from scriptures. His Christianity was not untainted by the “enlightenment,” but he still maintained a Christian worldview about what “property” and “ownership” are. From a Christian perspective, God retains ownership of all persons and property. He providentially bestows His blessings on whom He chooses. They, in turn, are expected to act as good stewards of God’s providence. This is the contextual framework that Locke’s “self-ownership” MUST be interpreted within. Outside of this framework Locke looks like an anarcho-libertarian, inside it he looks like what he was- a Christian libertarian wherein rights are a gift of God to be exercised within His boundaries and limits. Under the former, rights are the result of societal contract. Government is an unnecessary encumbrance of the contract. Therefore anarchy reigns and there is no mechanism for actually enforcing the social contract. Under the latter, rights are a gift and the social contract is entered into in order to protect them from those who would violate them. Government is a Providentially ordained and limited institution for enforcing the rights given by God.
Barry Sheets, the Director of the Institute for Principled Policy did a series of video presentations over 2 years at Camp American. The subject was the Foundations of the Founders. He has a different take on John Locke as this excerpted portion of a larger 2-hour video shows.
So where does the “Who Owns You?” video make reference to Locke’s Christianity or his clear references to scripture as the undergirding of his arguments in in both the First and Second Treatises on Government ? Well, clearly any such references would muddy the water regarding the case the video maker is trying to make. Locke certainly understood who owned him- God. And he clearly understood that rights were a gift of God, not the result of the evolution of a social contract. He also understood the concept that God is the true title holder of all and that we are merely appointed through His Providence as stewards over His holdings.
Kind of throws the discussion into an entirely new light, doesn’t it?
1 Sheets, Barry, The Founders’ Foundations, video series on what the founding fathers studied in forming their ideas for government, available at http://www.campamerican.com/?page_id=27&category=11&product_id=25
2 Locke, John , On Politics and Education, Walter J. Black, Inc., Roslyn NY, 1947, P. 87