What Does “Unalienable” Mean?
Tibor R. Machan
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, not 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 the funds, the right to property, even to one’s life or liberty, needs to 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 even if it has full democratic support.
The idea of the American Founder was to make clear that governments exist so as to secure these rights and not even in doing that job may they be violated. 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 to be 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, our life, by means of depriving us of the fruits of these in 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 way justice can be served 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,” it is an alienation of one’s rights for one’s mate to insist that one doesn’t 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 grated, 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 us and to obtain it we must be asked and give our consent.