Liberty, With Two Legs On Which To Stand
Second Place Winner, Young Adult Category
Josh Mercer (age 21)
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
In our world there are both idealists (religious and secular) and
pragmatists; advocates for freedom can employ both ideologies. The
natural rights theory appeals to the idealists' craving for justice,
while a utilitarian approach will attract those interested in
Natural rights theories developed chiefly from English philosopher
John Locke in the 17th century. According to Locke, God made man free
and equal; man then decided to enter into civil society with its laws
based on consent. "The great and chief end" of government, as Locke
described, was the protection of property. Only through such
protection could man utilize his labor to further his life.
Thus the Lockean view of government rests on a foundation of each
individual's right to life, liberty, and property. Such principles
for Locke applied equally so as to have "one rule for rich and poor,
for the favourite at court and the countryman at plough."
Yet Locke's natural rights system presupposed the existence of
God. What if one denied God, would the natural right theory collapse?
Years later, Ayn Rand provided a secular basis for natural rights
with a basic a priori belief: self-preservation. According to Rand,
"Rights are conditions of existence required by man's nature for his
proper survival. If man is to live on this earth, it is right for him
to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is
right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work." 
If man is to live then man must also have the right to use his mind
and his labor; he must have the right to property.
Rand's conclusions reflect Locke's. She wrote, "The only proper
purpose of government is to protect man's rights, which means: to
protect him from physical violence."  For Rand, government
properly understood would only retaliate against criminals and would
not initiate aggression.
As sound as the natural rights theory appears, many people are
unconcerned with such "theoretical abstractions." To them what
ultimately matters is "what works." Some deny that universal notions
of right and wrong are possible; nothing in nature can ground such
Economist Ludwig von Mises wrote: "The notion of right and wrong
is a human device, a utilitarian precept designed to make social
cooperation under the division of labor possible. All moral rules and
human laws are means for the realization of definite ends. There is
no method available for the appreciation of their goodness or badness
other than to scrutinize their usefulness for the attainment of the
ends chosen and aimed at." 
If that's true, is liberty doomed? If we can't appeal to justice
what alternative do we have?
Mises was not concerned with finding a universal system that would
prove liberty once and for all. Economics and praxeology (how humans
act), "apply to the means only one yardstick, viz., whether or not
they are suitable to attain the ends at which the acting individuals
Economics becomes a series of if-then statements to test whether
certain goals are attained. If we want production we must have
private property; if we want efficiency we must adopt a division of
labor; if we wish to live in prosperity then we must adopt
Considerable debate exists over which system, natural rights or
utilitarianism, is the correct one. Such a debate is purposeless.
Each system rightly defends the individual's right to life, liberty,
and property. Utilitarianism does because such a system produces the
results (prosperity, freedom, and peace) that we all say that we want.
Natural rights defends individualism because it is just; and thus also
the best system.
Since individual rights are both moral and practical it makes no
difference which of the two ways one embraces liberty. This should
not be a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is
doing. It should be of two legs walking towards the same destination
-- liberty -- in harmony with each other.
 Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged, p 1061.
 Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged, p 1062.
 Von Mises, Ludwig. Human Action, p.720.
 Von Mises, Ludwig. Human Action, p. 95.