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Bentham seems to think that the implications of the ideas contained in the Declaration of Rights will harm future governments. Future governments, rather than honestly figuring out which rights to protect and which to limit, will always be undermined by the notion that the people’s rights are being violated.

In the next section, he says that the idea that governments are created by contract is a fiction. All governments, with a few exceptions, have been created by force. But, he wonders, does how a government originates even matter? Of what significance is it? Are the people living today impacted if their government was created by force or by contract? People want to be happy. History does not change this. And governments, if they have a moral charge, exist to help people pursue happiness. (What is the best way for a government to promote happiness?)

Governments add their force to contracts. “Contracts came from government, not government from contracts.” Governments gain credibility in the eyes of people when they consistently enforce contracts.

Bentham spends the rest of this essay breaking down two more sentences contained in the Declaration.

So called natural rights, by definition, are not limited in any way. When nature is said to give all men a right to liberty or property, the effect is that no man actually has any rights. “What is every man’s right is no man’s right.”

In fact, government exists precisely because each man has absolute freedom. Placing limitations on people’s actions is what government does.

Unless one is living in a state of nature, liberty has boundaries. To, in the same breath, speak of both liberty without constraints and government is a contradiction. Since rights come from government, the rights, if they are to be meaningful, must come with limits. Laws, almost always, interfere with liberty. Those who claim otherwise have ulterior motives or do not realize the consequences of this illogical position.

What about property? Property rights place limits on liberty, and liberty is a right which is supposedly inalienable. After all, every other person loses the liberty to enter your home if your right to property is to have any meaning.

It is senseless, he argues, to say that people have a right to property without stating what property is being discussed. A right to what property? Does every man have a right to all property? In most matters of property, what is every man’s is, in fact, no man’s. So the idea that there is a natural right to property is meaningless. In fact, it might even be said to be counterproductive, undermining all notions of property.

Bentham spends a paragraph anticipating that he will be criticized for taking the language of the Declaration of Rights too literally. What should he do, he questions? Words have meaning and, as best he can tell, he is responding faithfully to the words and ideas in this text. Should he give the document a meaning it does not contain?
Let’s say that with respect to property that the writers intended to mean that all property possessed by all people when the Declaration was written ought never to be lost. Is this a more logical interpretation of their vague ideas?

What impact does this notion of property have on a government when taxes are levied? It appears that based on this interpretation no taxes can be imposed since they violate man’s right to property. Why speak about rights in such absolute terms when the most basic actions of government will, as a result, be viewed as violations of man’s rights and used as justification for disobedience of the civil authorities?
And what about man’s right to security? Are laws that expose men to danger a violation of a person’s right to security? Forced military service and even punishment of those who harm others are seemingly examples of violations of an unbound right to security.

The essay ends with a discussion of a so called right to resistance to oppression. What does this mean? Since, if this document is to be taken seriously, all actions of government are violations of man’s natural rights, the implication of this philosophy is that revolution is always justified.

In sum, I think Bentham essay powerfully critiques those who hold views that rights are absolute. While rhetorically powerful, the logic supporting such a view is fatal to government. Not just government by a tyrant, but all governments, even limited governments. Figuring out what limitations ought to be placed on government is a difficult and essential task. Supporters of natural rights that, by default, have no limits placed on them avoid this task. Or, at the very least, make all attempts to govern appear to be violations of these imaginary rights.
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