Defense of natural rights in the scriptures

By the very fact that you were born and are reading this, you have three natural rights. You have the right to your life (nobody should kill you), your liberty (nobody should enslave you) and your property (nobody should take away the fruits of your labor and the things you own). A close reading of the scriptures clearly shows that you were indeed born with these rights, and in fact the Bible and modern-day revelation all reflect the fact of natural rights.

The great heroes of the scriptures are the defenders of natural rights. The greatest tyrants are those who undermine natural rights.

Let’s start from the beginning. Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden and begin to til the Earth. Who owns the Earth? God does, but he allows Adam and Eve to “own” a portion of it during their lifetimes. Is the Earth common property, owned by all? No, people are given ownership during their lifetimes based on their work of the land. Adam and Eve do not own the entire Earth — they own the portions they can work. It would be ludicrous for them to claim they own mountains and plains hundreds of miles from where they first worked, but it would be equally ludicrous to question the fact that they own the very fields they first worked on and subsequent fields planted by them.

Adam and Eve are “given” (by the Lord) flocks of animals. Who owns the flocks? Well, at the beginning they are owned by the Lord, but He gives ownership to Adam and Eve during their lifetimes. The flocks become “owned” by Adam and Eve because of their labor. They work with the flocks, they presumably discover how to get milk and animal skins.

Their children also own the fruits of their labor. Abel had flocks. They belonged to him because he worked on the flocks. The flocks of animals were not “common property.” How do we know? Because Cain’s great evil act was to “get gain.” (Moses 5:31). He killed Adam partly out of jealousy but also partly because Satan tempted Cain because of Abel’s flocks. (Moses 5:38). “Cain gloried in that which he had done, saying: I am free; surely the flocks of my brother falleth into my hands.” (Moses 5:33). Cain believed ownership of the flocks would give him the proper glory and make him “free.” He also believed he could gain more money and power by owning the flocks instead of his brother.

Here we see two violations of natural rights. Cain killed to “get gain.” But this is crucial: Cain’s act was also evil because he violated the natural property rights of Abel. In theory, Cain could have created his own flocks. But it would have taken time and work and investment. Cain wanted the easy way out: he chose to take from somebody else rather than do the work himself.

Please notice the pattern: Abel did things the right way: he worked on his flocks and was given ownership of them. He had a natural right to that ownership. Cain did things the wrong way: he stole Abel’s property and killed him.

Time and again, this is the pattern in the scriptures: the heroes defend natural rights and the enemies of God offend natural rights.

Let’s consider Moses. He was a champion of individual, personal rights. The Israelites were enslaved by the Pharaoah, who was a great violator of natural rights. Pharoah’s great crime was that he saw other human life as belonging to him. He did not understand that individuals have rights given to them by God. He felt he “owned” the Israelites and therefore could take the fruits of their labor forever.

If we live in a world where natural rights don’t matter, Pharoah’s actions could possibly be justified. I’m sure he had advisers telling him that the Israelites “owed” him their labor. But Moses understood the importance of natural rights: nobody can make another person a slave. This is a violation of your natural right to liberty. But remember what happened when times got rough in the wilderness: the slaves wanted to return to Egypt because they had food there (Exodus 16: 2-3). This desire for worldly possessions without liberty was highly offensive to the Lord.

As we know, the Israelites eventually arrived in the promised land and set up self-governing units. They were ruled by judges. The Bible implies this was the most correct governmental system for the times, but evil men ruined it (see 1 Samuel 8:2-3). But of course the people, like in all times, chose an evil system rather than a just one. They wanted a king. Samuel warned them what would happen if they chose a king:

11 And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots.

12 And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.

13 And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.

14 And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.

15 And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.

16 And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work.

17 He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants.

18 And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.

19 ¶Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us;

The lesson could not be more clear: people have a natural right to their lives, their liberty and their property (D&C 134:2). People should choose to be free and not allow governments to take away these rights. But people who ignore the Lord choose evil systems of government, governments that take away their freedom (people will have to work for the king and go to war from them); their right to property (the king will take away your property and a tenth of your flocks and take them for himself) and their right to life (the king will use this money to make instruments of war).

In one chapter, we see clearly the contrast between the Lord’s way (protect your natural rights) and the world’s way (tyrants destroy your natural rights).

If you continue to ponder the scriptures, you will see this contrast played out again and again. Nephi honors natural rights, Laman and Lemuel want to take them away; Nephi tries to buy the plates from Laban, Laban steals Nephi’s family’s money; the evil Lamanites and Gadianton robbers want to enslave people and live off their labor, just people want to work for themselves and live off their own labor; Captain Moroni wants to defend the freedom of his people (remember the Title of Liberty?) — evil men want to take away liberty.

The message could not be more clear: men and women are born with natural rights. The purpose of government should be to protect these natural rights. The heroes of the scriptures do so. The tyrants “reign with blood and horror on this Earth.”

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

23 thoughts on “Defense of natural rights in the scriptures

  1. I’m a bit puzzled by your examples of Nephi and Captain Moroni, since Nephi ultimately killed Laban for the plates and Captain Moroni threatened the life of those who did not support the country (you even describe tyrannical governments as forcing people to “go to war for them”). Both seem to be a direct violation of natural rights–how would you account for that? And you can’t simply say that it was okay in that instance b/c God commanded them, b/c the whole notion of natural rights is to defend against those that claimed authority over your rights because they believed God had given them such power (like a divine-right monarch).

  2. DLewis, decent points. You could also throw in God ordering Joshua and his troops to destroy the people living in modern-day Israel. The scriptures definitely make you ponder things, don’t they?

  3. That the contention between Cain and Abel could be couched in terms of ownership and natural rights vs taken by force (getting gain). Nothing kept Cain from raising sheep in another tract of land if he so chose to do so, but he sought to have that which belonged to another, and to take it by force.

  4. Deuteronomy 15. Every 7th year is a jubilee year where all debts are cancelled. Property isn’t a natural right.

  5. Small star, that is an argument in favor of the proposition that a lenders right to be repaid is not an unconditional natural right, but not an argument with regard to property in general.

    However, in general I agree that very few if any natural rights are unconditional natural rights. That way lies insanity.

    No one has an unconditional natural right to the fruits of his labor, i.e. under any and all circumstances, but everyone does have a natural right to the same, under ordinary circumstances. The alternatives are violence and tyranny.

  6. small star,
    Deuteronomy does not apply to the story of Adam and Eve, etc. It is part of the Mosaic Law, not necessarily the higher law (where all belongs to God, and therefore is not personal property, but stewardship ownership).

    Besides, Jubilee has nothing to do with a person’s inheritance, but in restoring property and personal liberty to where it was 50 years before. Abel’s sheep never belonged to Cain, and Cain had no right to it. Jubilee means that if I borrowed from you, in the year of Jubilee that debt was forgiven. But there was still the issue of payments up to that time, wherein the person was expected to repay his debts.

    So, I don’t fully see how it negates the OP.

  7. Thers’s also the law of gleaning, where a portion of the crop must be left in the field. Leviticus 19:9; 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19, and the premise of Ruth. The natural right you are claiming is simply not in the Bible, or anywhere else, for that matter. Societies work better when there are measures to provide a measure of income equality, like those described in the Bible, and Scandinavia. It”s how Democracy began and continued in ancient Athens; not to mention that you are misreading Locke. The society you think you want can be viewed by merely going back in time until the regulations and taxes you despise didn’t exist. I suggest the US in the 1870’s, when there were monopolies and regular boom and bust cycles galore, also no middle class. The yoke of the corporation is much heavier than that of the government, because there truly is no representation.

  8. Small star, the law of gleaning is all about personal property rights. Boaz owns the property being gleaned and is urged as part of the law of Moses to give the poor the right to go *with their own hands* to glean the leftovers. If it were community property, the poor would own part of the land, but they don’t — they are given the right through personal charity to work on their own for their own sustenance. In modern-day terms, this is kind of like people who need food from the bishop’s storehouse being asked to work a day a week in exchange for the food. It is a private, charitable activity. So in fact the example you used proves property rights are central to the Bible. If they were not, the land would be held in common or the government would take taxes from Boaz to give to the poor — instead the poor are asked to work in exchange for their charity.

    I will ask commenters to stick to the topic of this post, which is not the US in the 1870s. Thanks.

  9. The Bible also ex5plicitly condones slavery in both the old and new testament. There are numerous instances of the Israelites taking the property of mother with explicit approval of the Lord. There are also numerous instances of the Lord ordering killings. In Exodus 32 3000 men are slain, in Numbers, the Midianites, the people of Sidon, and those of Og are all put to the sword, to give just a few instances out of many; here’s a quote:

    Deuteronomy 20:13 And when the LORD thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword:

     14But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee.

    Killing people is not only allowed, but sometimes required; slavery is explicitly allowed, and debt (a property right) is cancelled every 7 years.

  10. Forgive the double comment, but if you get to take other people’s stuff then propertymrights are far from sacrosanct.

  11. Small star, this is really good because we are both reading the scriptures more, and that’s a great thing. You have mentioned some of the conundrums of the Bible, as DLewis did in comment #1. I have always wondered how the Lord justified killing everybody and everything in the land of Canaan when Joshua’s people crossed the Jordan, but that was the commandment. Obviously, that is a violation to the right to life for these people. But I think we are meant to see that as a special exception required of the Lord for reasons we can’t possibly understand.

  12. Small star, on this blog, we ask commenters to be respectful to others. People are allowed to disagree with you — it is called free speech. The scriptures are extremely complex and often self-contradictory. I am making the case that the vast majority of the Bible and modern-day revelation supports the idea of natural rights. You disagree. That’s fine — you are allowed to disagree. But personal insults aren’t going to make it on this blog. In addition, if you want to disagree make a few comments and then go your way. I hope you come back to this blog to read and comment on other posts.

  13. “Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can.” – Samuel Adams

    These three natural rights are mentioned twice in the Constitution, in the Fifth and 14th amendments, as well in D&C 134:2.

  14. Let’s make clear one thing in the scriptures. “Getting gain” as in Gadianton robbers or Cain, does not equate to capitalism.
    In the scriptural sense, getting gain is based upon coveting a neighbor’s stuff and doing whatever is necessary to get it for oneself. For Cain, it did not mean trading with Abel, but slaying him and stealing it. For the Gadiantons, it meant killing others to gain power and treasure.
    While there may be some capitalists who are into getting gain in illicit ways like this, most do not. The concepts of capitalism are based upon respecting each others’ innate rights of life, liberty and property.

    While some think capitalism goes along with slavery, actually it doesn’t. Slavery occurred long before capitalism. And it was when capitalism began creating a middle class and a social conscience that people like William Wilberforce and anti-slavery coalitions came into being. If it wasn’t for capitalism and the social conscience it created, perhaps we would see more slavery going on right now. As it is, the nations that continue in mass slavery tend not to be capitalist states, but dictatorships or communist states.

    Where there is no respect for property rights, there is no respect for personal liberties, regardless of the economic system. Red China has long neglected personal liberties and rights, in the name of Marxism. Only in the last few decades, wherein capitalism and personal liberties have been allowed, do we see a middle class appear and a voice for more freedom. This is the way it is in most nations today. BTW, tens of millions died of starvation under Soviet and Chinese communism. Very few people starve to death in the USA.

    Even the law of consecration is based upon a form of capitalism. We initially consecrate all things to the bishop. He returns to us our portion as a stewardship. Then we work in a capitalist system, paying tithing annually on our increase thereafter. Each person “owns” as a stewardship his own property, etc. As long as that person is faithful, that property or inheritance cannot be taken away.

  15. Good points Rame. People trying to link “getting gain” with capitalism always falter when thinking about Steve Jobs or your corner grocery store started by an immigrant family or of course their own job. They are not “getting gain,” are they? Master Mahan taught to get gain by illicit activities. Secret combinations are attempts to do things behind closed doors to get gain, ie, stealing, plotting to take from others, etc. This is an activity that *violates* natural rights.

    A person setting up a corner grocery store is offering a *voluntary* service. No force is involved. You can go buy there if you want. If the person offers good service and good prices, you *voluntarily* decide to buy stuff there. Steve Jobs offers you the voluntary opportunity to buy iphones. Again, he is not taking from anybody.

    In contrast, people like Cain and the Gadianton Robbers are following Satan’s way. They do not build anything up — they take from others who have built things up. They take by force. They force others to deal with them. Theirs is the principle of aggression, not voluntary exchange.

    In modern-day terms, true free-market capitalism involves following property rights and allowing people to voluntarily exchange things in a win-win system. I want to buy an iphone for $200 — you want to sell to me — we both win. In contrast, corporatism — where people meet behind closed doors to secretly plan things that are not based on voluntary action — is the exact opposite of free-market capitalism. All of the failings of the marketplace are due to corporatism — which is government interfering with free exchange. So, in modern-day terms, Gadiantons run the gamut from the mafia to the Fed to the people who plan government bailouts of failed businesses. They all are involved in secret combinations to “get gain.”

  16. I mostly agree with your conclusions, but not with your arguments.

    I see very little citation to actual scripture here. My project this winter and spring is to reread the Old Testament and, honestly, your natural rights interpretation is buried pretty deep, if its in their at all.

    When Adam and Eve are driven out, there is no textual discussion of what portion of they land they own and under what conditions they claim ownership. Same with the stuff about the herds. Those are assumptions you bring to Genesis, not conclusions you get out of it.

    Consider the 7 fat years and lean years, where Joseph advises Pharaoh to tax everyone at 20% during the fat years and then to make them sell their land and even themselves to Pharaoh during the lean years in return for food, all without even a hint of condemnation in the text. Hardly the picture of rights-respecting libertarianism, or anything even close.

    I don’t need to belabor all the different ways that the OT accepts and condones slavery, that’s been done by other folks. But I will point out that there isn’t even a *hint* in Exodus that Pharaoh is under condemnation for practicing slavery. Its not so much that Pharaoh has enslaved people that is a problem, its that he enslaved the *Israelites,* whom God favors and has made promises to. To the extent the text hints at any specific wrongs, its Pharaoh giving harsh burdens to his Israelite slaves and trying to kill their manchildren, not slavery itself.

    The episode where the Israelites borrow gold and silver from their neighbors, with no intention of repaying it, is also hard to reconcile with any robust conception of natural rights in property. (Note that it was Pharaoh, not the neighbors, who enslaved the Israelites; also note that the scriptures explicity state that these neighbors feared God and had respect for Israel.

  17. Also, Nephi? Seriously? Its probably possible to reconcile Nephi killing Laban with a natural rights perspective, but it doesn’t spring naturally from the story we have in the scriptures.

  18. Adam, I actually agree with you that the scriptures (perhaps with the exception of D&C) do not look at personal rights. Instead, they look at national rights. The covenant God made through Moses was not with each individual, but with the community.

    This was the view taken for many centuries, until modern times when a middle class began sprouting up. Capitalism was not practiced in Adam’s day, Moses’ day, or Jesus’ day. While there may have been markets, more often than not, they were not based on capitalism, but on mercantilism, guilds and monopolies approved by the king. One could try to say that Jesus’ overturning of the money changer tables was a step against such, but in all honesty, he did not tell them to move toward capitalism, but towards God, instead.

    Still, no other economic process in history is known to have created the wealth and benefits for so many people. The increase in technological development occurred because of capitalism, rather than despite it.

  19. Anthropologists have shed a lot of light on the economics of the ancient near east (including the fantastic book, Debt: the First 5,000 Years by Graeber). Of course, it goes without saying, as Rameumpton demonstrates, that 17th century notions of property rights are not found there. Its difficult to find any human society that has lived according to natural rights-respecting principles without significant governmental intervention (although the Teutonic tribes come to mind as a place where your gain was supposed to be roughly proportional to your efforts (and we owe them a significant debt for the property rights-obsessed common law we inherited) but even there, substantial redistribution occurred by the chief).

    I guess it is easy to breezily conclude that property rights are natural rights, but that does not mean that they are self-evident, self-enforcing, or naturally respectful of the rights of others, which is where all of the problems lie and the community obtains an interest.

  20. DCL, good comments. I would add on the other side of things, however, that governments have been very inefficient in maintaining and protecting rights, and providing benefits for their people.

    Look at the many European and Asian nations that over the last 20 or so years have gone bankrupt or neared bankruptcy due to inefficiently managing their budget. Our “stimulus” package supposedly “saved” a few million jobs, but each of those jobs cost almost $300,000 to save! That was almost a trillion dollars taken out of the economy to do that. Imagine what small businesses could have done with employing people with 1/2 that amount! They could have paid 10 million people salaries of $50,000, or 5 times as many people.

    Our Medicare is so inefficient and full of Fraud, Waste and Abuse, that we lose $400 Billion a year. That is a lot of money that is taken out of the economy and dropped down a sink hole. Every year. Again, we could have small businesses hire 8 million people for that amount annually at $50,000. Then, they could buy their own insurance!

    Of course, unfunded mandates will end up costing us tens of trillions of dollars.

    Why is this the case? Because government interference often does greater harm to the overall economy than we get from a free market enterprise. One of the reasons we had robber barons a century ago is due to government interference in the market place. Government did not allow unionization of the people, and sold monopolies in many instances (as we do with utilities today – and we wonder why everything is so expensive).

    Government’s job should be to ensure free entrance and exit from the market place, to ensure there are no powerful long term monopolies, tax every company fairly without loop holes, and get the heck out of the way of the rest of it.

    Medical care is high. Why? Because of state monopolies for insurance companies. Because of limited medical schools that keep doctor salaries artificially high. Because of trial lawyer lobbies that protect their large pay-offs. Because of other lobbies for drug companies and others that seek to over protect their patents, and keep products artificially high. Because Medicare and Medicaid artificially force doctors and hospitals to increase costs to cover expenses. Because government forces tax payers to pay for all those who “cannot” pay at emergency rooms. And the reasons go on.

    The common link? Government.

  21. DCL, I think you are missing my point. I am not saying that natural rights were respected. If there is anything we know about the Earth, it is that tyranny becomes the norm. “I will reign with blood and horror on this Earth” is Lucifer’s warning that he will twist things so that people do not get their natural rights because other people will set up secret combinations to take them away. Cain was his first recorded disciple.

    If anything, the fact that natural rights did not exist in most societies is a confirmation of my thesis. We are given natural rights, but they are always trampled.

    Zion is a place where people respect others’ natural rights. “There are no poor among them” means that people voluntarily give to others, help each other and respect each other. People can live in peace and happiness best if they mind their own business and don’t oppress others, but at the same time help others when needed. Central to zion is the notion that you have the three natural rights but also have the responsibility to give. Satan’s plan is to force others to do what is right (ie, give voluntarily to others), Zion’s plan is that it comes spontaneously from your love of God.

    Adam G, as I have said many times in this thread, there are contradictions in the scriptures. There is no one “right” way to read them at all times. We all can see things that others don’t see. Just to give one example, I see the example of Abraham and Lot agreeing to separate an example of their respect for the natural right to property — if the property was communal they never would have done so. I see most of Laman’s hatred of Nephi based on a false concept of property rights and a false concept of the natural right to liberty, and I see that we are meant to recognize this. So, well-meaning people can see things in the scriptures different ways. That’s cool.

  22. The only way I can see these ideas around natural rights working is if a community reserves the right to exclude anyone who does not wish to comply. Otherwise, the scriptures and secular history also make it amply clear that a righteous state absent of law is ephemeral at best.

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