Lost Language, Lost Liberalism

A review of the changes 1880-1940 to the central semantics of liberal civilization.

Rights  Confusions

Mulford, Elisha. 1877. The Nation. Hurd and Houghton: New York.

[11] The antithesis to the nation as an organic unity, is in the conception which frames it upon abstractions. It assumes a certain scheme of rights, or system of laws, and then proceeds to construct the state out of these rights, or sets it forth as the product of this formal law. These assumptions are destitute of an historical foundation, and arise in the empty notion that men by a reflective act can constitute the nation, and that it exists as the sequence of an abstract conception.

[119-120] The realization of the freedom of the nation, or political freedom, is in rights. Freedom embodies itself in rights, as in rights also there is the manifestation of personality. The institution of positive rights defines in the nation the sphere of a realized freedom. … The freedom of the people as it becomes determinate establishes itself in rights…. It is only in rights that freedom is actualized in the nation; it is only in positive rights that it gains a sure foothold in its progress; they alone afford the requisite strength and security for it. In rights freedom is guarded against denial, fortified against fraud, shielded against conspiracy and surprise and sudden overthrow. In the same measure in which freedom fails to establish itself in rights, whose institution is in law, it is liable to the whim and the caprice of men, and the highest interest is left to the adjustment of changing circumstance. This secure institution and organization of freedom in positive rights is the work of the statesman. It demands the more comprehensive political sagacity. Freedom does not gain much while it is held in an ideal conception, and is left to the pages of scholars, or the rhymes of poets, or the voices of orators. These are not laws, and the condition of every advance in freedom is its assertion in laws and its organization in rights. It has in their strong guaranties alone protection against selfish interests and private aims.

George, Henry. [1879] 1926. Progress and Poverty. Garden City Publishing: New York.

[336] The equal right of all men to the use of land is as clear as their equal right to breathe air—it is a right proclaimed by the fact of their existence.

[386] And so it has come to pass that the great republic of the modern world has adopted at the beginning of its career an institution that ruined the republics of antiquity; that people who proclaim the inalienable rights of all men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have accepted without question a principle which denying the equal and inalienable right to soil, finally denies the equal right to life and liberty.

[542] Equality of political rights will not compensate for the denial of the equal right to the bounty of nature.

Smith, John Brown. 1881. The Brotherhood of Man. J. B. and E. G. Smith: Massachusetts.

[6-7] Whereas, we believe that the fact of being born on the earth gives every child of man an inalienable right to an equality of ownership in all the productive forces of nature, such as sunlight, air, water, minerals, land, and all productive or other forces of nature, as well as the past accumulations of genius, experience, knowledge, art and industry. The natural deduction from this great truth is, that the only defensible right that any person or combination of persons can claim to the forces of nature is the right of possession for necessary use—this is nature’s only legitimate title-deed that of right ought to be recognized. The productions of the man of right belong to the race, and the productions of the race of right belong to the man. Divergence from this natural justice is presumptive evidence of robbery, fraud, ignorance, selfishness or despotism on the part of the despoilers of industrial justice.

George Harwood (1845 – 1912) was a British businessman and Liberal Party politician. In Parliament he took a keen interest in issues regarding the Church and licensing. He was also concerned with working conditions, being a principal supporter of a bill for the early Saturday closing of textile factories.

George Harwood (1845 – 1912) was a British businessman and Liberal Party politician. In Parliament he took a keen interest in issues regarding the Church and licensing. He was also concerned with working conditions, being a principal supporter of a bill for the early Saturday closing of textile factories.

Harwood, George. 1882. The Coming Democracy. Macmillan and Co.: London.

[19] As to rights, those whom we displace have generally, like ourselves, gained possession by force, but have not the same right to keep it because they do not use it as well; for there is a wide difference between employing force for our own benefit, and for others’ good. Not only peoples, but virtues, such as freedom, justice and progress, have their rights; and probably force has its rights too, for in looking back over history we see that it has been generally given to those who were, at the time, serving the best purposes.

[22] Fuller notice should perhaps be taken of two objections which are continually urged against this probable policy of the Coming Democracy. One of these refers to its Morality and the other to its Method. As to the first, we are told that this policy must frequently lead to a violation of the rights of others. The word ‘rights’ should be most sparingly used in political discussions, because it is most difficult to tell what it means. In this connection it is understood to convey the idea, that those who are in the possession of territory ought to be left in undisturbed power over it. But what reason can be given for such a claim?

[171-172] This, indeed, is the gist of the whole matter; so that the first question which the Democracy will have to consider is, whether it is better for the nation that its land should be held by few or by many. After that, will come the question of the best form of tenure by which these should hold it. According to the answers to these two questions, will the land question be eventually settled, without much regard to the feelings of this or that class; and no supposed rights of property will be allowed to stand in the way. It will be useless to say that, if the rights of landlords are disturbed, the tenure of all property will become insecure, for the people are rapidly coming to believe that land must not be put in the same category with things which men have made themselves. As no man gave the land, so no man can be allowed to take it away, for the nation has rights over it which no private titles can ever annul. The Coming Democracy will unflinchingly assert these rights; and will insist that consideration for the good of the nation must have the strongest influence in determining the proper settlement, since in regard to land the motto pre-eminently holds true that the welfare of the people should be the supreme principle of law.

[369] And when we come to examine these ‘rights’ which are said to be the essence of political progress, we find that even they have no stable existence outside the sanctions of Religion…. We must seek elsewhere a basis for the ‘rightsof Democracy: and this can only be found in the motive of Religion; for otherwise, no reason can be given why any man, who is not compelled by force, should believe in, or accede to, such ‘rights.’

William Stanley Jevons, (1835 –1882) was a British economist and logician. Jevons' contribution to the marginal revolution in economics in the late 19th century established his reputation as a leading political economist and logician of the time.

William Stanley Jevons, (1835 –1882) was a British economist and logician. Jevons' contribution to the marginal revolution in economics in the late 19th century established his reputation as a leading political economist and logician of the time.

Jevons, William Stanley. 1882. The State in Relation to Labour. Macmillan and Co.: London.

[6] In determining the proper functions of government] the first step must be to rid our minds of the idea that there are any such things in social matters as abstract rights, absolute principles, indefeasible laws, inalterable rules, or anything whatever of an eternal and inflexible nature.

[10] In endeavouring to gain clear ideas as to the proper method of legislation, nothing is more necessary than to descend from vague terms and abstractions to the definite facts which they imply or are founded upon. We cannot help speaking of principles and rights, but we must endeavour to avoid the persistent fallacy of taking words for things. Such principles are not existing things; they are only complex propositions founded on extensive experience, and indicating the probable results of actions. They are registers, as it were, of the convictions of society that a certain course will involve certain consequences.

[12] It may be fearlessly said that no social transformation would be too great to be commended and attempted if only it could be clearly shown to lead to the greater happiness of the community. … No laws, no customs, no rights of property are so sacred that they may not be made away with, if it can be clearly shown that they stand in the way of the greatest happiness.

[17] I venture to maintain, however, that we shall do much better in the end if we throw off the incubus of metaphysical ideas and expressions. We must resolve all these supposed principles and rights into the facts and probabilities which they are found to involve when we inquire into their real meaning. The right of a man to dispose freely of his labour means the recognition by the Legislature that in the majority of cases a man is the best judge of his own interests in disposing of his labour. In a number of cases specified in the statute books, the Legislature recognises an opposite state of things. The principle of the freedom of trade stands on the same footing; it is a probability of advantage which, however, must be set aside in case of greater probability of evil. The indefeasible right of a squire to his ancestral acres rests, of course, upon the like considerations. All depend ultimately upon the salus populi, which is the only lex suprema.


Thompson, Robert Ellis. 1882. Political Economy. Porter and Coates: Philadelphia.

[36] The universal element in the vocation of a state is expressed in the statement that it is the institution of rights. This differentiates it from the family, which is the institution of the affections; also from mankind at large, as rights are realized and made positive through the existence of the state.

[50-52] It is, therefore, apart from all merely ethical considerations, a wise economic policy for a nation to guard the lives and the health of its people, and to remove all artificial obstructions to the natural growth of population. It is indeed the duty correlative to its right to command their lives and persons in its own defence; but it is also the best policy, in view of both the military strength and the industrial welfare and contentment of its people. For the more people there are productively employed in any well-managed country, the greater the share of food and clothing, of necessaries and comforts, that will fall to each one of them. Whatever tends to diminish their numbers, —or, what comes to much the same thing, to lower their bodily health and strength—has also the tendency to impoverish them by diminishing their power of cooperation and association. … Thus in England the law recently passed to limit the hours of work in mills and factories for married women, received the support of nearly all that class of mill-hands. They were free to make such private contract with the mill-owner as they pleased, but in fact their freedom amounted to nothing whatever until the law required them to refuse excessive work.

In other cases the right of state interference rests on the same ground as the laws that forbid and furnish attempts at self-murder. The man who persists in maintaining a dunghill or a cesspool under his windows, or in living in a house sordid with filth or imperfectly ventilated, may have the excuse of ignorance, but society has not. The officers of the state have as much right to force him to reform these things, as they would have to dash a dose of poison out of his hand.


Pearson, Norman. 1883. “Manhood Suffrage on the Principle of Shareholding,” The Nineteenth Century 14(82): 1075-1089.

[1075-1076] [The] propriety [of manhood suffrage] is naturally taken for granted by many Radicals, as the simplest method of securing a democratic form of government. But for those who dispute the claims of democracy, some further justification is needed. This has been explained by one able and competent organ of Radicalism to lie in the right of the many to govern themselves. Assuming, as we may, that this fairly represents the Radical contention, let us look a little more closely into this alleged ‘right.’

A good deal of confusion prevails in the employment of the term ‘right.’ … Now in what sense can the many be said to have a right to govern themselves? In a strict sense they certainly have none; for a right, properly so called, can arise only from the ordinance of a political superior, and subsists only so long and so far as its observance can be enforced by some adequate sanction. It is clear, then, that in declaring that the many have a right to govern themselves, the word right is not used, nor intended to be used, in the above sense. It is therefore only necessary to draw attention to this point in order to emphasize the fact that the right so claimed has no legal or constitutional force, and must depend for its validity on moral or other grounds. The right, then, of the many to govern themselves must rest on some generally accepted principle of equity or morality, and will have its sanction in the disapproval with which mankind at large will visit the violation of this principle. It is not easy to point to any such principle. It may be said that all men have a natural right to be free. But this sentiment, though imposing in sound, is rather barren in effect. Even if such natural right be not surrendered to the community, its enjoyment is so largely curtailed by the corresponding rights of other individuals, and the imposed rights which the State exacts, that for practical purposes it may be disregarded.


William Edward Hearn (1826 – 1888) was an Irish university professor and politician. He was one of the four original professors at the University of Melbourne and became the first Dean of the University's Law School.

William Edward Hearn (1826 – 1888) was an Irish university professor and politician. He was one of the four original professors at the University of Melbourne and became the first Dean of the University's Law School.

Hearn, William Edward. 1883. The Theory of Legal Duties and Rights. Trubner and Co.: London.

[143] A right has nothing to do with conformity to any standard, legal or moral or other. It denotes a peculiar legal relation. This relation is altogether independent of the rules of morality or of abstract justice. It depends exclusively upon the law. It is in the fullest sense the creature of the law. The law makes it, the law may unmake it. It arises from the law, it is controlled by the law, it expires with the law.

Medley, Dudley Julius. 1884. Socialism as a Moral Movement. B. H. Blackwell: Oxford.

[10-11] The old system upon which the moral and economical world at present is supposed to lean, is one that is summed up in the word ‘Individualism.’ …[This] system which we are about to examine, gained its name from the central doctrine—the rights of the Individual. As stated in its extremest form by Mr. Spencer, this doctrine proclaims that ‘every man has freedom to do all that he wills,provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other ‘man.’ … In fact the value of the doctrine is purely negative: it has given men ability to act; but what is now to be their action? Individualism merely expresses the gain of that liberty, that freedom from repression, which Mazzini lamented that the democrats were taking for their end, instead of making it only the means to something higher. Its advocates have freed themselves from a positive, material law, but their system affords no answer on the question of man's proper guidance for the future. … The position of the Individualist leaves us no society, nothing but an aggregation of individuals bound over to keep the peace, but for the rest following their own individual objects. But even if we accept the Individualist's definition of government as a mere preventive force, yet we must still cling to our original opinion that such government is the necessity of our lives. The Individualist, however, would have us believe that it is an evil necessity, and we can only answer him by showing that, if such is the case, we must regard our life itself as a necessary evil. It is at present impossible to do more than hint at the refutation which we might give to the Individualist theory.

Miller, William Galbraith. 1884. Lectures on the Philosophy of Law. Charles Griffin and Co.: London.

[177-178] When the state becomes conscious of its existence, it feels the antagonism of such subordinate groups. It recognises the individual, and gives him rights. It formulates the duties of the paterfamilias. When once the law has given a name to the family group, it lays down the duties and rights of all the members, as members not of the family but of the state.

Sheldon Amos (1835–1886) was an English jurist. In 1869 he was appointed to the chair of jurisprudence in University College, London, and in 1872 became reader under the council of legal education and examiner in constitutional law and history to the University of London.

Sheldon Amos (1835–1886) was an English jurist. In 1869 he was appointed to the chair of jurisprudence in University College, London, and in 1872 became reader under the council of legal education and examiner in constitutional law and history to the University of London.

Amos, Sheldon. 1885. The Science of Law. D. Appleton and Co.: New York.

[91] Apart from all thought of the artificial creations of law, there is no doubt some definite amount of qualification of the positive freedom of each man, which presents exactly the condition most favourable, at a given period, to the welfare of all. … The generic expression which denotes, for any age and country, the exact measure of personal liberty for every man which supplies the most favourable conditions for the highest possible development of the moral existence of all, is ‘rights.’ The correlative liabilities of every man to respect the liberty so limited is expressed by the term ‘duties.It appears at once, then, that, though some classes of rights are universally recognized, and seem to be appropriate to all stages of human society, yet it can hardly be said that there are any ‘rights of manas such, or that there are any modes of liberty or of restraint to be universally described as essentials of the State in all countries.


Green, Thomas Hill. 1885. Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation. Longmans, Green, and Co.: London.

[44-45 (s25)] I have tried to show in lectures on morals that the conception expressed by the ‘should be’ is not identical with the conception of a right possessed by some man or men but one from which the latter conception is derived. It is, or implies on the part of whoever is capable of it, the conception of an ideal, unattained condition of himself as an absolute end. Without this conception the recognition of a power as a right would be impossible. A power on the part of anyone is so recognised by others, as one which should be exercised, when these others regard it as in some way a means to that ideal good of themselves which they alike conceive: and the possessor of the power comes to regard it as a right through consciousness of its being thus recognised as contributory to a good in which he too is interested. No one therefore can have a right except (1) as a member of a society and (2) of a society in which some common good is recognised by the members of the society as their own ideal good, as that which should be for each of them. The capacity for being determined by a good so recognised is what constitutes personality in the ethical sense; and for this reason there is truth in saying that only among persons, in the ethical sense, can there come to be rights; (which is quite compatible with the fact that the logical disentanglement of the conception of rights precedes that of the conception of the legal person; and that the conception of the moral person, in its abstract and logical form. is not arrived at till after that of the legal person).

Conversely, everyone capable of being determined by the conception of a common good as his own ideal good, as that which unconditionally should be (of being in that sense an end to himself), in other words, every moral person, is capable of rights; i.e. of bearing his part in a society in which the free exercise of his powers is secured to each member through the recognition by each of the others as entitled to the same freedom with himself. To say that he is capable of rights, is to say that he ought to have them, in that sense of ‘ought’ in which it expresses the relation of man to an end conceived as absolutely good , to an end which, whether desired or no, is conceived as intrinsically desirable. The moral capacity implies a consciousness on the part of the subject of the capacity that its realisation is an end desirable in itself, and rights are the condition of realising it. Only through the possession of rights can the power of the individual freely to make a common good his own have reality given to it. Rights are what may be called the negative realisation of this power. That is, they realise it in the sense of providing for its free exercise, of securing the treatment of one man by another as equally free with himself, but they do not realise it positively, because their possession does not imply that in any active way the individual makes a common good his own. The possession them, however, is the condition of this positive realisation of the moral capacity, and they ought to be possessed because this end (in the sense explained) ought to be attained.

[46 (s28)] …[N]o right can exist except as belonging to a person in the legal sense.

[s29] The capacity, then, on the part of the individual of conceiving a good as the same for himself and others, and of being determined to action by that conception, is the foundation of rights ; and rights are the condition of that capacity being realised. No right is justifiable or should be a right except on the ground that directly or indirectly it serves this purpose. Conversely every power should be a right, i.e. society should secure to the individual every power, that is necessary for realising this capacity.


Raleigh, Thomas. 1886. Elementary Politics. Henry Frowde: London.

[69-70] When we speak of ‘moral rights’ we mean claims which would, in our opinion, be converted into rights if our legislation were guided by moral considerations. When we speak of ‘natural rightswe mean claims which would be converted into rights if Parliament took the same view of things in general as we do. ‘Moral rightsand ‘natural rightsare purely ideal; they have no existence in the actual world of politics and law…. But the term ‘rightis a legal term; and people like it just because it is legal—because it conveys the notion of a decree or law by which somebody is to be compelled to do something for them.


Politicus. 1886. New Social Teachings. Kegan Paul, Trench, and Co.: London.

[166] Consequently, whatever freedom each man possesses is conferred by his fellows, and but for them he is a cipher awaiting the numerals which shall elicit his latent powers. Clearly, if freedom is not an abstract right, nor liberty, which denotes the quantity of freedom left when restriction operates, no other such right can exist, for all are branches of freedom. Thus we find that the doctrine of abstract individual rights—rights originating independently of and anterior to the co-operation of our fellows—is baseless. That freedom is the daughter of opposition is true, however paradoxical such a proposition may appear.

[151-152] Thus we see that a State can exist only in so far as the general welfare is its aim. In other words, that aim expresses its nature or essence. This being so, no abstract rights, no individual, natural rights, can be allowed. Just as Individualism rests, if it have any resting-place, upon the ‘rights of man’ doctrine, so Socialism implies a denial of them. Even the right of a man to the produce of his labour is not an abstract right. Honesty and freedom are firmly guaranteed by all rational Socialism, not on a priori grounds, but as deductions from the principle of the common welfare.

[172-173] We have already found sufficient ground for dismissing what are termed abstract natural rights. If further reason were needed, it would be found in the above position, that man is, in every act, bound to the service of virtue, the end of virtue being the common good. Upon this it follows that he has no rights other than those which base themselves upon the common good, whereas the pith of Individualism lies in the contention that every person has certain rights, interference with which no public considerations can justify. But we may pass on to the point to which we have now come, viz. the foundations of the State. If man not only has no rights except those which harmonize with the common good, but if his life has no just meaning or purpose except to realize the common good, then the State must ground its existence thus or stand condemned. To deny ‘abstract rights’ we described as throwing down the walls which bar out the State; but we required a reason why the State should enter. Obviously the reason is that thus is promoted the common good. The deniers of the ethical constitution of the State can find no ground for interference with the individual.

[190-191] We find that the State may interfere with every right of the individual, except such as harmonize with the general good. Thus the entire subordination of the individual is postulated, even though there be but little actual interference. The right of the State to obedience is unlimited, and the duty of obedience by the individual is also unlimited. We have seen, notwithstanding, that no sacrifice of individuality is thus affirmed. From a definitely ethical point of view we see the consequent relation with perfect clearness.

[192] The State is a number of human beings organized to realize the ‘common good’; and the ‘common goodis equivalent to virtue. Thus the life of the State is strictly a moral life. It is not merely analogous to the moral life of the individual; it is a portion of it—that portion, namely, which can be realized by the agency of public law. The individual, in so far as moral, sacrifices his private self to the ‘common good.He will, therefore, be morally bound to sacrifice that portion of his private interest which the State may demand, that portion of the selfish life which public law can effectively touch. The State laws in question being for the ‘common good,disobedience to which is not merely crime, but vice, the self which the State will coerce will be only the vicious, that is, the selfish self. Thus it is that selfish self alone whose ‘individualismis checked by the State—the individualism of vice.


Lacy, George. 1888. Liberty and Law. Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey & Co.: London.

[131] The natural right of a man to his life therefore includes, in the nature of life, a natural right to food, clothing, and shelter. To deny his right to these is to deny his right to his life. No method of reasoning can escape this conclusion.

[133] Man, therefore, as an individual, has a natural right to his life, his life including, in virtue of its nature, food, clothing, and shelter. Beyond this he has no natural rights, for the simple reason that here his possibilities cease. As there are no self-regarding actions, all his acts are social acts, and must be considered in his capacity as a citizen of a State, and not in his capacity as an individual.

As a citizen of a State he clearly has further natural rights. A State is not an accident, it is not a fortuitous concourse of atoms; it is an organism evolved by natural law, whose existence, like the existence of all other organisms, depends upon the harmonious interaction of its constituent atoms. The constituent atoms are individuals, and as the lives of these depend upon the life of the greater organism, they, as units of the State, have a primary right to demand that this harmonious interaction, by which alone the State can be preserved, should be enforced. In other words, they, as citizens of a State, have a natural right to demand that the interests of individuals should be so adjusted as to preserve perfect harmony in social communion, and to prevent any clashing of rival interests —in short, so that the interests of each should be in reality the interest of all, and the interests of all the interest of each. That is to say, that they, as citizens of a State, have a natural right to JUSTICE. This then is the word I propose to substitute for that much abused word Liberty.

[135] Man, therefore, considered as an individual, has one natural right only—the right to life, life including its natural corollaries of food, clothing, and shelter. This right is prior to all State rights. When living under the protection of a State this right may be best expressed by the term, ‘his natural right to a competence.’ What may amount to a competence is a question for the legislature for the time being. But whatever may be the differences of opinion as to what constitutes a competence, no legislature can deny the natural right of every individual to one without exceeding its own rights and committing a crime.

[136] But States also have natural rights. They are organisms, they exist, they live. Therefore they have a natural right to their lives. In order to live they have the right to enforce that harmonious interaction of constituent atoms by which alone their existence can be preserved. They have therefore supreme power over all individuals, bounded by the natural right of the latter to life, competence, justice, and to a vote. This right therefore includes, altogether independent of the question of justice as among citizens, the right of self-protection from the machinations of individuals.

[140] Besides the right to justice, the citizen has a right to vote, and this right must also have its corollary… Abstention from voting is then an evasion of duty, and a crime.

[141] Natural rights are those essentials to the existence of the individual and the State without which they would cease to be; anything not thus essential cannot be of the character of a natural right.


Robbins, Alfred F. 1888. Practical Politics, Or, the Liberalism of To-day. T. Fisher Unwin: London.

[115-116] The first objection is that this would be an undue interference with ‘the rights of property.’ But it has already been laid down by Parliament that such ‘rightscan be set aside in the public interest upon the payment of fair compensation; and what has been done in regard to the making of railways can be done respecting the building or the preserving of houses. The existing system is an injury to the community; and as the price to be paid for its abolition, whether wholly or in part, would be assessed by a tribunal constituted by Parliament, the landlords would have no more reason to complain than they now have when compelled to sell a portion of their property to a railway company.

The next plea is that it would interfere with ‘freedom of contract.Upon the general question of what that freedom is, how far it now exists, and in how large a degree the State has a right to interfere with it, one need not speak, for in this matter of leases Parliament has already stepped in to ‘interfere with freedom of contract.It having been found that some landlords were accustomed to insert in leases oppressive provisions for forfeiture in certain conditions, the Legislature empowered the courts to lift from the leaseholders covenants which unduly burdened them. And if a precedent is asked for the particular remedy proposed, the Acts enabling any copyholder to enfranchise his holding should be consulted.


Ward, Lester F. 1888. Dynamic Sociology, Vol. I. D. Appleton and Co.: New York.

[32] Not until we have succeeded in banishing the metaphysical conception of abstract right, and taken down the unrealizable standards of an imaginary disinterestedness in action, shall we be prepared to discuss intelligently the conditions of man's progress conceived as capable of accomplishment by his own efforts. The first step in this movement is the recognition of the primary law that in the last analysis all results are accomplished by force. … Its effect as a law of sociology is to establish the necessity for a paramount source of power in human society.

[32-33] It is here that the new science is destined to be strongly antagonized by the growth of erroneous ideas respecting liberty. The so-called ‘abstract rights’ of mankind must be denied if society is ever to become the arbiter of its own destiny—in theory, that is, for it is impossible that the real enjoyment of liberty should be thereby in the least diminished, while the sum of human happiness must be greatly increased, and this is the only conceivable object of any right. … In point of fact, all things are now and always have been governed by force, and all the attempts to disguise it under the color of abstract right have only served to make it easier for the unscrupulous to accomplish their personal aggrandizement. Government has always wielded an iron scepter, which the forms of law have only rendered the more inexorable. The most complete recognition of the right of force in human society — the only role known to the rest of the sentient world, and the only one ever acted upon by mankind — could by no possibility render matters worse than they are. But this recognition would put it in the power of the controlling authorities in society to introduce progressive elements into government, and make the coercion which is now so fruitless a positive and increasing future benefit. Under the negative system of government which has prevailed thus far, the world naturally looks round and asks what return it has received in exchange for all this sacrifice, and it is no wonder that many insist that the account is against government, and would gladly dissolve the partnership and annul the ‘social compact.’


Ely, Richard T. 1889. An Introduction to Political Economy. Chautauqua Press: New York.

[299] As the State…determines what shall be private property, it determines the conditions of its existence, and it will be found, on examination, that nowhere has there ever existed any such thing as absolute private property. The rights of private individuals have always been of a more or less limited nature, and among the rights reserved by the people in their organic capacity will be found in every civilized State the right to take a portion of the wealth produced for such purposes as the law-making power may deem fit. The aim, of course, should be the promotion of the public welfare.


Burgess, John W. 1890. Political Science and Comparative Constitutional Law, Vol. I: Sovereignty and Liberty. Gin and Co.: Boston.

[178] The rights of the individual in respect thereto are the powers conferred upon him by the state to exercise certain prerogatives, and to call upon the government, or some branch thereof, for the employment of sufficient force to realize these prerogatives, to the full extent as defined by the state. The immunities of the individual in respect thereto are his exemptions from the power of the government itself, or any branch thereof, to enter or encroach upon this sphere, except in the manner and to the extent prescribed by the state.


Gunton, George. 1891. Principles of Social Economics. G. P. Putnams Sons: New York.

[296] We often hear such expressions as ‘absolute rights,’ ‘inalienable rights,etc. Strictly speaking, there are no such rights in society; not only the right to ‘liberty and the pursuit of happiness,but even the right to life in society is necessarily subject to the will of the aggregate, as authoritatively expressed in the state or government. This is indispensable to the existence of society. Society being an association of individuals whose immediate interests are not always identical and whose conceptions of the equity of their relations are frequently very different, the existence of a power superior to both, whose authority shall be absolute, is indispensable to social order. All rights of the individual in society therefore, must in the very nature of the case, be conditional. Absolute individual rights are a social impossibility.


Ritchie, David George. 1891. Principles of State Interference. Swan Sonnenschein: London.

[43] It is becoming clear that when people speak of natural rights of liberty, property, etc., they really mean, not rights which once existed, and have been lost, but rights which they believe ought to exist, and which would be produced by a condition of society and an ordering of the State such as they think desirable.


Sorley, W. R. 1891. “The Morality of Nations,” International Journal of Ethics 1(4): 427-446.

[436] State action is, or ought to be, for the common good of the whole; and the sacrifice of property, and still more that of life, can only be justified when necessary for the common welfare. The state must therefore be regarded as having duties to its citizens: though they are not the same as those one citizen owes to another. Conversely, the citizen may be said to have rights against the state,—not, indeed, an absolute right either to life, or property, or freedom of action, but a right not to be deprived of these, except for the good of the state, acting impartially for the good of all.


Bowne, Borden Parker. 1892. The Principles of Ethics. Harper and Brothers: New York.

[215] For various reasons, partly historical and partly speculative, this view of rights has not always been accepted. Rights have been denied outright except as expressions of power. Might makes right, is the classical expression. Or it is said that every natural impulse may rightly fulfil itself; and when there are competing impulses or competing persons, the law of the stronger is the only law. This view reduces to the previous one. In both views the natural state of man is a war of all against all; that is, there is universal competition, with only the parallelogram of forces to decide the outcome.

Such natural rights are no rights; as well might we speak of rights among conflicting impersonal forces. Such a state of nature also is manifestly incompatible with the existence of society. Hence, many have sought to find the sole source of right in positive law. Apart from this we have only war. Society puts an end to this war by establishing laws; and these are the source of all rights. Apart from society, rights are only a question of power; within society they are what society enforces or permits.


Wood, Joseph. 1893. “Wealth and Commonwealth,” The New Nation 3(6): 85-87.

[85] In the propaganda of socialism nothing seems to me more important than to get people to see and acknowledge the indebtedness of the individual to the community; that there would be no wealth but for the commonwealth; that the main element in property is not personal but social. It is only in fellowship and combination that property is acquired. The social life is the only answer, in fact, which meets the individual’s desire to live. It may seem for a moment that the world of labor is just a world of toiling units, each bearing the burden of its own life. But his is only a fragment of the truth. Never in any past which history brings within view has the individual ever labored to support his own life by himself alone. As soon as industrial and economic life begin to have any history at all, we are following forms of combination between man and man which daily become more intricate and complex. No progress, no wealth, no accumulated stores, no life, in fact, is possible except in fellowship. The duty to live is the duty to labor, and this becomes the duty to live in mutual helpfulness with others. … To-day we are fed in body, soul and spirit by the millions of human beings all over the wide world. … Others are always working for us. We are always being ministered unto. Day by day, hour by hour our indebtedness to the community increases. To the community we owe everything. … We talk about our right to our own! What is our own? We are bankrupts every one except by the grace of the community, and our one right is the right to serve. Each for all can be our only motto, and private property becomes a mere convention, more or less convenient, but a convention only, which society allows and which society can abolish without wronging any man.


Hoffman, Frank Sargent 1894. The Sphere of the State. G. P. Putnams Sons: New York.

[56] The natural right to property, therefore, is ultimately resolvable into a State right. The people, as an organic brotherhood, are to decide what disposition is to be made of all property. While the good of the individual and the preservation of his right to the products of his labors are of great importance, the welfare of the brotherhood as a whole is of far more importance and should be the point of view from which the laws controlling the possession and use of property are finally determined. The good of the brotherhood as a whole is rarely, if ever, in collision with the best interests of its individual members. The laws of property that the State enacts will seldom need to set aside the natural right to property, but will almost always confirm and strengthen that right.

[60] The doctrine of the inviolability of vested rights rests on a false conception of the State, and before the true conception has no foundation whatever. The true State will never allow any individual, or collection of individuals, to hold and use any given property any longer than such holding contributes to the common good. The moment it ceases to do so, that moment the vested right becomes violable. The government of one generation can never unalterably bind a future generation as to its use of property. It can never grant a franchise for the use of property that a future generation cannot annul, or make a contract that a future generation cannot break. The word ‘foreverin any document concerning the possession and use of property is a fiction. The sooner it is read out of court the better. Because a government has once allowed corporations to be formed for the investment and use of property is no reason why they should be continued in existence when they cease to promote the public welfare. It is not only the right, but the duty of the State to legislate them out of existence when it becomes clear that some other method of holding and using property will better further the well-being of the people. The laws concerning the use of property are just as subject to change as those concerning the acquisition of property, and it is the duty of the State through its government to have them changed whenever it is evident that the good of the organism as a whole requires it.


Swinton, John. 1894. Striking for Life: Labors Side of the Labor Question. American Manufacturing and Publishing Company.

[260] That inspiriting American song of the old days, ‘Vote Yourself a Farm,’ which cannot be sung at this time of the century, contained the germ of a great and ever-living idea—the idea that all men possess certain primitive natural rights, more especially the right to the means of life, through the use of the earth and the enjoyment of its resources. You had the right to a farm, and had the power to ‘vote yourselfone.

[368-370] Old things are passing away; all things are becoming new. The world is whirling in these times. … We see the franchises of public right undermined without protest. Here are formidable individuals and corporations usurping, legally or otherwise, the proper functions of the State, seizing the public property, and turning to their own aggrandizement the things that by nature and by justice are for the common good. These formidable usurpers prosecute their schemes in defiance of such laws as we have, and of the public welfare, and of the destructive effects of their action. … In our country we must have no powers not of the people, no corporations adverse to their welfare, no body of persons with privileges denied to others; but one great American community we must have, with equal rights, under fair play.

[338-339] Now, this ever-living document names three natural rights with which all men are endowed—the right to life, to liberty, and to the pursuit of happiness.

How fruitful is each of these words! How pregnant the phrase ‘natural rights,’—a thing to which man is born, —which belongs to him by the fact of his birth, and which, in Jefferson's words, is inalienable! … First in Jeffersons trilogy is the right to life, including, of course, the means of life, the things necessary to it Every man has a birth-right to the means of life, and his life itself is assailed when this is for any reason denied him.

[339] I am not going to refer to the land question farther than to say that every man’s right to life implies every man's right to land. As this, then, is one of the natural rights of man, it is, consequently, a wrong to man to deprive him of his share of the soil in which the means of life are grown.


Ritchie, David George. 1895. Natural Rights. Swann Sonnenschein and Co.: London.

[103] The appeal to natural rights, which has filled a noble place in history, is only a safe form of appeal if it be interpreted, as just explained, as an appeal to what is socially useful, account being taken not only of immediate convenience to the existing members of a particular society, but of the future welfare of the society in relation, so far as possible, to the whole of humanity. If it is argued that such an appeal is at least as ambiguous as a mere reference to natural rights, I answer, No; for in appealing to social utility, we are appealing to something that can be tested, not merely by the intuitions of an individual mind, but by experience. History is the laboratory of politics. Past experience is indeed a poor substitute for crucial experiments; but we are neglecting our only guide if we do not use it. This means no slavish copying of antique models, but trying to discover, from consequences which followed under past conditions, what consequences are likely to follow under similar or under dissimilar conditions now.

[255] Many Champions of the idea of natural rights do not assert the natural right of everyone to have a vote.


Taylor, Thomas Wardlaw. 1895. The Individual and the State. Ginn and Co.: Boston.

[45] Even if natural rights could be known, they would still be of none{C}{C}[3]{C}{C}  effect. Natural right is barren. It tells merely what is, and from it we can never pass to the what ought to be. One natural right does not involve or give rise to another natural right. The procedure which posits one right, like bare existence, for example, and then proceeds to deduce from it a whole body of other rights, is absolutely vicious.

[48] The whole phrase natural right is false and misleading in so far as it implies that nature reveals a definite rule which might serve to determine for the individual any absolute and inviolable claim to exemption from State interference in any sphere whatever. Even when granted to exist, no deduction can be made from it. The claim must always be based upon public expediency. Natural right can give no definite limit for State activity. For all practical purposes it is an idle fancy.


Rashdall, Hastings 1896. “The Rights of the Individual,” Economic Review 6(3): 317-333.

[317] We have held that whatever in the way of State action tends to the general good is justified; whatever militates against it is not justified. Hence we may say that the only rights which the State can be called upon to recognize in the individual are such ‘liberties of action and acquisition’ as tend to the general good. Usually, of course, the term ‘rightsis confined to liberties which can be enforced by law. Legal rights are, of course, such liberties of action and acquisition as are actually secured to the individual by the positive law of a particular State. In the language of moral and political philosophy, we generally mean by rights such liberties as ought to be secured by law, though in a looser sense we may apply the term to liberties which society ought to respect, though without implying that they ought necessarily to be legally enforced.

[325] Equality of opportunity, on our principles, can only be accepted as a right of man in proportion as it can be shown to be really conducive to the general good.

[331] Except the right to equality of consideration there is no right in the individual which does not spring from the demands of social well-being. So long as this principle of equality of consideration is respected, there is no possible extension of State interference which can be reasonably resisted in the name of the individual's rights.

[333] I have tried simply to lay down three principles: —

1. That the individual's only absolute right is equality of consideration.

2. That the State has an absolute right to interfere with the individual to any extent conducive to the general good, interpreted in accordance with the principle of equality of consideration.

3. That the development of individual character is in itself of primary importance, in enabling the State to do whatever it undertakes to do—whether little or much—for the promotion of that highest well-being, or good life, for which it exists.


Willoughby, Westel Woodbury. 1896. An Examination of the Nature of the State. The Macmillan Company: New York.

[123] Now, as has already been made evident, the only validity which could be ascribed to a social compact would have to be based upon a consciousness, on the part of the individuals consenting to it, of a moral duty to keep one’s engagements to another;—in fact, upon the recognition of mutual rights and obligations. But given in a community this feeling of mutual rights and duties, and{C}{C}[4]{C}{C}  have we not already existing that feeling of unity, that sentiment that creates the State? If, then, such a compact were thus entered into, it would not be a creative act, but only a formal declaration of the sentiments of community of interests and feelings that have already existed. It therefore appears that the origin of the State must be conceived as an act of a People rather than of individuals. The existence of a common or ‘General Will’ must be predicated, and the creation of the State held to be due to its volition.

[138] But in so far as a human being is recognized by the State as having ‘rights’ that it will enforce and protect, his individual personality is of a character precisely similar to that enjoyed by the State. Thus the individual is a person in the juristic sense only because he has legal rights, and does not have legal rights because he is a person. This we made sufficiently plain in our criticism of the doctrine of Natural Rights.

[181] The result of the preceding chapters has been to show that there are in the individual no so-called innate or ‘natural rights,’ that is, such rights as exist independently of the State and beyond its control.


McKechnie, William Sharp. 1896. The State and the Individual. James MacLehose and Sons: Glasgow.

[155-156] Every division must be, both in legal constitution and in its heart and life, in touch with every other, and each individual must have his political rights assigned to him in the constitution of the whole, and must freely share in the common interests and life. Thus the ideal would involve a perfect adjustment of that nice balance between individual freedom and the sovereignty of the whole, which is the essence of the organic conception as applied to any State. The life of the part and the life of the whole would require to pass into one another, and so find their fullest and most perfect realization in this organized community of humanity.

[227] No theory, however, is harder to kill outright. The doctrine of natural rights tends to reappear in a new phase immediately it{C}{C}[5]{C}{C}  has been rebutted in its old one. A few of its best known forms must be briefly enumerated, and, if possible, refuted. Absolute claims to exemption from the control of government have been set up on behalf of (1) rights of individual liberty, (2) rights of conscience, (3) contractual and proprietary rights, (4) rights of the church, the family, and the voluntary association, (5) rights of subject nationalities, and (6) ‘the rights of man’ considered generally.

[238-239] The conclusion of the whole inquiry then is that the argument for inalienable and absolute rights valid against the State cannot stand in any one of its many forms. Whatever is included in the State is subject to its political sovereignty, and therefore can ground no claim to any rights which are absolute. Further, it can have no legal rights even against the legal sovereign or chief part of the existing government. Parliament is legally above association and family and church and individual.

The State is absolutely (as well as legally) above them all. … Man has assuredly rights, but a true doctrine of these rights must regard them as existing only in and through the State, and never apart from or against it. They must be based upon the sovereignty of the body politic. … ‘Individual and private rights,as has been forcibly said, ‘have their root in a social authority; the individual possesses his rights, not because of any divine and eternal claim to them, but because they have been given to him and confirmed to him by the State.’

[239] Man’s rights become actualities only through the State, and the legitimate sphere of the individual is also the legitimate sphere of the government.


Harrison, Frederic. 1896. John Stuart Mill,The Nineteenth Century 40(235): 487-508.

[493] The real weakness of the book, the cause of the aversion it inspires in so many minds, lies in its ultra-absolute dogmatism and its violent exaggeration of individualism. Mill’s canons as to State intervention are stated with the rigid generality of mathematical axioms. His propositions bristle with such words as ‘absolute,’ ‘unqualified,’ ‘of right,’ ‘sovereignty,’ ‘independence.Now, the science of politics abhors any ‘absolute,’ ‘unqualifiedrule: it uses ‘right,’ ‘sovereignty,’ ‘independenceonly in a legal or else in a metaphorical way, never as constituting a rigid social law. Mill is far too deeply versed in the history of sociology and jurisprudence to appeal to ‘rightswith the reckless sophistry of so many metaphysicians. But when he speaks of a thing as ‘not warranted,as being ‘of right,or ‘not rightfully,he is appealing to a theory of right. But we know now that sound principles of social organisation cannot be founded upon ‘rightsexclusively. ‘Rightsare primarily what the law will secure for each, and secondarily, what each may think himself worthy to receive—an idea on which no doctrine can be framed. At bottom, the book on Liberty is an attempt to ascertain what are the ‘rightsof the individual against the State. We know that this is like asking what are the ‘rightsof the stomach against the body?


Watt, Wellstood Alexander. 1897. The Theory of Contract in Its Social Light. T. and T. Clark: Edinburgh.

[47] A right, when understood, implies the recognition of it by others, on the ground of a common rational nature. The persons of law are thus in principle exclusive, but the exclusion must not be conceived in an abstract or physical way. Their spheres must be mutually limited; they must so exclude each other as not to contradict the principle upon which exclusion is possible. And thus we see that the interference of the State—not indeed exclusively in the interests of law itself, but of something much wider—the whole social organism—is justified.


Lewis, George Cornewall. 1898. Remarks on the Use and Abuse of Some Political Terms, new ed. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

[33] Yet we hear of original rights, natural rights, indefeasible rights, inalienable rights, imprescriptible rights, hereditary rights, indestructible rights, inherent rights, &c., where there is no pretence of legislative sanction: indeed the only object of using these names is to induce the legislature to convert these supposed rights into real rights, by giving them the sanction of law. The phrase, natural right, takes its origin from the doctrine of a state of nature, which will be more fully explained below. It appears to signify a claim recommended by natural law, or by those rules which were recognized by common consent, when mankind were in a state of nature. An indefeasible right is a right which man enjoyed in a state of nature, and which he only surrendered conditionally at the making of the social compact; so that nothing has since been able to defeat or destroy it, and it is ready to be revived at any time. An imprescriptible right is a right which was prior to the social compact, and which continues to exist without being subject to prescription or failure by lapse of time. An inalienable right is a right which cannot be alienated from a man. Indestructible rights, inherent rights, hereditary rights, birthrights of liberty, &c., appear to have nearly the same meaning; viz. that they are dormant rights, never exercised by the possessors, and not extinguishable by any law. In fact, however, these imprescriptible, inalienable, indefeasible rights, in most cases never have been rights, or, if they have, long since were alienated and defeated by the sovereign power. These various expressions have all taken their origin from the theory of the state of nature and the social compact; but they are frequently used by persons who have never heard of this absurd and mischievous doctrine, and would perhaps reject it if they knew it.



Bosanquet, Bernard. 1899. The Philosophical Theory of the State. McMillan & Co.: London.

[204] …[T]he system of rights may be described as ‘the organic whole of the outward conditions necessary to the rational life,’ or ‘that which is really necessary to the maintenance of material conditions essential to the existence and perfection of human personality.This point of view is essential as a full contradiction of that uncritical conception by which rights are regarded as something with which the individual is invested in his aspect of isolation, and independently of his relation to the end.

[206] A right, we said, is a claim recognized by society and enforced by the State. My place or position, then, and its incidents, so far as sanctioned by the State, constitute my rights, when thought of as something which I claim, or regard as powers instrumental to my purposes. A right thus regarded is not anything primary.


Commons, John Rogers. 1899. “Right to Work,” The Arena 21(2): 131-142.

[131] Notwithstanding academic disproof of Natural Rights, the doctrine retains its hold on popular movements and legislation. The controversy is mainly a matter of words. Political economy originated a century since, as a science of the production of wealth. The past generation has witnessed its transition to a science of the distribution and consumption of wealth. We need now to see that it is, at bottom, a science of beliefs concerning wealth. In the popular mind, these beliefs are known as Natural Rights. But nature here is not the physicist’s nature. It is not the physical universe, but the idea of the universe. It exists in the mind. And, indeed, we know no other universe. Herbert Spencer has given us a doctrine of Natural Rights based on the physical universe and its evolution. But the doctrine is only Spencers belief about the universe.

[134-135] The recognition of this new right [to work] is a reflection, not only of higher opinions about man, but also of new industrial conditions. … It is a new right under new industrial conditions, which the popular conscience is beginning to believe morally right. But it must inevitably meet hostility. It is clearly and plainly an encroachment upon property rights, and those whose interests are mainly propertied, will, unless balanced by a devotion to man as well as property, array themselves in opposition. But this has been the problem of all new rights of man, and has been found in the outcome to have sprung from illusion and defective insight. Already the property of the community is pledged to furnish subsistence to every man, woman, and child, but on condition that the recipient brand himself with the mark of pauper. The right to work removes this brand.

[138] The right to work springs not from a theory of production, but from a belief in the worth of man as man, and an insight into the material and social conditions which foster manhood. It is a right of the worker, not to the entire product, but to a definite standing supported by law within industry along with the capitalist proprietors. … The successor and substitute for the rights to free industry and free employment, must, under new conditions, be the right to a definite and right standing, within the existing industrial enterprises. This is the Right to Work. But the right to work, like the right to liberty, is not a single glorious right to be granted by plebiscite, but a bundle of rights to be earned, one by one. What each particular one is, must be discovered by a close analysis of the kinds and causes of lack of employment.


Westel Woodbury Willoughby (1867 – 1945), was an American academic. At the urging of Professor Willoughby, Johns Hopkins created the first department of Political Science under his leadership and with him as the only professor. He helped to found the American Political Science Association and served as its 10th President. 

Westel Woodbury Willoughby (1867 – 1945), was an American academic. At the urging of Professor Willoughby, Johns Hopkins created the first department of Political Science under his leadership and with him as the only professor. He helped to found the American Political Science Association and served as its 10th President. 

Willoughby, Westel Woodbury. 1900. Social Justice. The Macmillan Company: New York.

[99-100] …[T]he law recognizes no right in the owner to put his property to a use that will interfere with the rights of others, or be detrimental to the interests of the community as a whole, it is clear that, as an abstract conception, the legal conception of private property rights cannot be objected to. All that the social reformer can ask as to this is, therefore, that the definition and manner of exercise of property rights shall be so stated as to avoid such evils as can be demonstrated to result from property rights as now defined. They cannot properly claim that property rights should no longer be maintained.

[226] But rights, that is, claims of the individual to certain spheres of activity within which he shall not be limited by other individuals, — these are not only rendered possible of realization by society and the State, but they are created by society and the State, and cannot be conceived as existing either actively or potentially apart from the social and political body. They have a significance only in connection with social and political aggregates. Right, as we have defined it, may exist apart from human association; rights, never.


Herkless, William Robertson. 1901. Jurisprudence or the Principles of Political Right. William, Green, and Sons: Edinburgh.

[58] Since the state is the sphere of right, and since it is only within that sphere that men are able to realize the potentiality of their nature, and to live self-determined lives, membership of the state is the basis of existence as a person. A person, then, may be thus defined: A human being, or a group of human beings, viewed as a unit member of the state and as capable, in virtue of inclusion within the state, of having rights and of acting freely in the exercise of rights.

[84] It is as a person, and only as a person, not as a human being in the full reckoning of his attributes as this or that human being, that a man stands in the sphere of right. Hence it follows that the relations of men to one another, so far as these relations are relations of right or can be determined by law, are relations of persons, as persons, to one another. Right can exist only between persons. No thing can ever have a right. The relations of right, however, in which persons stand to one another have reference to the outward goods which man needs for his existence and well-being. Right is not concerned with external objects, considered as natural objects manifold and various. Such external objects, so considered, are the earth and the products of the earth, and what man makes of those products. But right or law regards them in their general aspect as destined for man and for the satisfaction of man’s needs.


Hobson, John Atkinson. 1902. The Social Problem. James Nisbet: London.

[v-vi] This science and art of social utility is clearly sundered from old utilitarianism which was individualistic and hedonistic in its standard, and purely quantitative in its method or calculus. To this new utilitarianism, so ordered as to give due recognition and rightful supremacy to the higher needs and satisfactions of man in society, the rights of individual property are referred for delimitation, and are set upon a rational basis. The part played by social co-operation, in the production of all forms of wealth and the determination of all forms of value, is investigated; and upon the results of this analysis the rights of society to possess and administer property for the common wealth are established.


Boynton, Frank David. 1904. School Civics. Ginn and Company: Boston.

[16] The object of government is to secure the individual rights and liberties of all — to give the widest possible freedom to the individual for his self-development, and yet to guard that freedom against the competition that kills, and to reduce the antagonism between self-development and social development to a minimum. In other words, the ideal toward which government strives is to secure to every individual of society the largest possible liberty compatible with the general welfare.

[16-17] It is only in organized society that rights can be said to exist at all; and as society grows more complex, new distributions and clearer definitions of rights must take place; in other words, as society develops, government, which originated with the society itself, has constantly before it the progressive task of securing the greatest possible liberty of the individual compatible with the general welfare. During the long struggle up from savagery to the modern civilized state, this question of the distribution and maintenance of individual rights has played, indeed, is still playing, a most important role. Individual rights are not something fixed and unchangeable from the beginning and destined to remain fixed to the end. They are undergoing a constant but very gradual change, a change so gradual as not to interfere in the least with a very clear understanding of what they are at any particular moment.


Giddings, Franklin Henry. 1904. Principles of Sociology. The Macmillan Company: New York.

[418] It is in this truth that the sociologist discerns the essential significance of the much-befogged doctrine of natural rights. Natural rights, as the term was once understood, have gone to the limbo of outworn creeds; not so those natural norms of positive right that sociology is just beginning to disclose. Legal rights are rights sanctioned by the law-making power; moral rights are rules of right sanctioned by the conscience of the community; natural rights are socially necessary norms of right, enforced by natural selection in the sphere of social relations; and in the long run there can be neither legal nor moral rights that are not grounded in natural rights as thus defined.


Smith, David Wilmot. 1904. The Way Out. James H. Barry Company: California.

[144] The whole object of this book is to show that if, ‘Americans and mankind’ have the ‘natural rightMr. George says they have, it is not and never was their social right; and as all men are members of society they have no other rights, but social rights.

Social rights are the only rights public policy has anything to do with, and to the extent that public policy has sanctioned the social right of men to compete with each other to get work and sell their labor in the open market to get it, for any price they pleased; it has been a bad, corrupt and rotten policy, and I hope laboring men will organize themselves into a great army, not with guns, but with ballots in their hands, and vote it out.


Adams, Edward Francis. 1905. A Critique of Socialism. Paul Elder and Co.: San Francisco.

[21] Human conduct, individual and aggregate, must be regulated and determined by the consensus of the judgment of the wisest made effective through its gradual acceptance as the judgment of the majority. Private ownership of land, with its accompanying rent, is justified, not by an imaginary inherent right in the individual, which has no real existence and so cannot be conveyed, but because the interests of society require the stimulus to effort which private ownership and private ownership only can give.


Hobhouse, Leonard T. 1905. Democracy and Reaction. G.P. Putnams Sons: New York.

[161] There are no abstract rights whatever of nationality, or of empire, of liberty, or of property. The rights of an individual are what he may expect from a social organization based on certain principles, and the test of his rights is this, that their persistent violation is in the end fatal to the principles of the organisation.


Sir John William Salmond,  (1862 – 1924) was a legal scholar, public servant and judge in New Zealand. For his text,  Jurisprudence or the Theory of the Law  (1902), Salmond was awarded the Swiney Prize in 1914 by the Royal Society of Arts.

Sir John William Salmond,  (1862 – 1924) was a legal scholar, public servant and judge in New Zealand. For his text, Jurisprudence or the Theory of the Law (1902), Salmond was awarded the Swiney Prize in 1914 by the Royal Society of Arts.

Salmond, John William. 1907.  Jurisprudence or The Theory of the Law. Stevens and Hayes: London.

[202] In respect of their contents, rights are of two kinds, being either positive or negative. A positive right corresponds to a positive duty, and is a right that he on whom the duty lies shall do some positive act on behalf of the person entitled. A negative right corresponds to a negative duty, and is a right that the person bound shall refrain from some act which would operate to the prejudice of the person entitled. The same distinction exists in the case of wrongs. A positive wrong or wrong of commission is the breach of a negative duty and the violation of a negative right. A negative wrong or wrong of omission is the breach of a positive duty, and the infringement of a positive right. A negative right entitles the owner of it to the maintenance of the present position of things; a positive right entitles him to an alteration of this position for his advantage. The former is merely a right not to be harmed; the latter is a right to be positively benefited. The former is a right to retain what one already has; the latter is a right to receive something more than one already has.


Hillquit, Morris. 1909. Socialism in Theory and Practice. The Macmillan Company: New York.

[70-71] New factors in our industrial life from time to time create new social conditions, and produce new conceptions of social rights and obligations. These remain abstract and debatable theories until such time as they have been incorporated in the statute books, and a penalty has been attached to their violation. Then, and then only, they are transferred from the domain of ethics to that of law.

[84] The more advanced workingmen of all countries begin to regard the economic dependence of their class and the privileged position of the employing classes as a social injustice. They feel that the part of the toilers in the process of production entitles them to a larger share of the national product, and that they are despoiled and deprived of their just due by the classes in power. They demand an ever greater consideration and protection for labor, and an ever larger curtailment of the privileges of wealth. These demands of the workingmen assume for them the form of social or ethical rights, and their struggles are struggles to realize their rights as laws. The character of the legislation which the working class thus advocates and strives for, is diametrically opposed to all the fundamental principles of modern or bourgeois law. It is based on the right of persons instead of property rights, and on social regulation, control and protection, instead of the principles of free competition and non-interference.


Hobson, John Atkinson. [1909] 1974. The Crisis of Liberalism. Harper & Row Publishers: New York.

[80] Once grasp the idea of the public as a Social Organism, or even as a Corporation administering a property corporately made, it becomes clear that no right appertains to any individual to administer any portion of his property, because as an individual he has made no part of it. But while he has no right as an individual, he has a duty as a member of Society to contribute as best he can to the administration of the common property for the common good.


Jones, Percy Vivian. 1910. Social Justice. Cochrane Publishing Co.: New York.

[9-10] For example, under the present system of social arrangements in the United States, the great majority of the people are denied their natural right to work for themselves. They must therefore work for others on the best terms they can make; while others have the work to give or withhold, they must have the work in order to live.

The result of the bargain made under such circumstances will naturally be that the employer gets the services of the employe for less than those services are worth; that is to say, the employers will work their employe[e]s at a profit. It is an inevitable condition of this so-called free contract, that the worker must yield to his employer a considerable part of the produce of his labor, in order that he be permitted to live.


Jovner, James V. 1910. “Some Dominant Tendencies in American Education,” (NEA) Journal of the Proceedings and Addresses (July 2-8): 78-92.

[79-80] With the growth of the democratic spirit, the recognition of the civil and religious rights of the common man, there dawned a new era of liberty on earth. The common man has slowly come to understand that there is no liberty without learning, no equality of opportunity without equality of educational opportunity, guaranteeing to every child, as an inherent right, the chance to develop to the fullest every power in him for effective service.

With this new conception of his educational rights, the common man first demanded an equal chance for his child to obtain the same sort of education that the favored few alone had heretofore enjoyed. In obedience to this demand, a system of free elementary schools was first established, furnishing equality of opportunity to the children of the rich and the poor, the high and the low, alike, to obtain therein the essentials of intelligence.


Haywood, William Dudley and Frank Bohn. 1911. Industrial Socialism. Charles H. Kerr and Co.: Chicago.

[13] In North America the workers behold a great mass of laws, old and new, which they have been carefully taught to respect and obey. These laws were made by the political and legal servants of the masters. They were created for the purpose of protecting property which existed long before the law gave the owners a ‘right’ to it. Yet all the rights which the capitalists claim are based on these laws. As soon as the workers determine to abolish them, or ignore them, the capitalists’ ‘rightto what the workers have produced will cease to exist.


Hobhouse, Leonard T. [1911] 1994. Liberalism and other Essays. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, MA.

[61] An individual right, then, cannot conflict with the common good, nor could any right exist apart from the common good.

[76] The ‘right to work’ and the right to a ‘living wageare just as valid as the rights of a person or property.

[151] The central point of Liberal economics is the equation of social service and reward. This is the principle that every function of social value requires such remuneration as serves to stimulate and maintain its effective performance; that everyone who performs such a function has the right, in the strict ethical sense of the term, to such remuneration and to no more; that the residue of existing wealth should be at the disposal of the community for social purposes… It is, indeed, implied that the State is vested with a certain overlordship over property in general and a supervisory power over industry in general, and this principle of economic sovereignty may be set side by side with that of economic justice as a no less fundamental conception of economic Liberalism. For here, as elsewhere, liberty implies control.


MacDonald, James Ramsay. 1911. The Socialist Movement. Henry Holt: New York.

[166] The Socialist revives the classical individualist claim that unless a man can find the means of life all the theories about his liberty are but unreal shadows, and the duty imposed upon him to preserve his life cannot be borne by him. In society the right to work cannot be made  effective except by the state. A man cannot go to any single employer and say: ‘I demand employment’; but he may justly go to the state and say: ‘I have tried everything I can think of but I can find no work. I present my claim either to be put to work or to receive subsistence.’ That is the foundation of the Right to Work Bill for which the British Labour Party is responsible. … It may also be provided by a scheme of insurance, the premiums of which are provided by the state, the trade, and the body of workmen. That is much nearer to the general principles of Socialism, and in that form this part of the Right to Work claim is now being advocated and enforced by the Socialist parties of the world.


Vrooman, Frank Buffington. 1911. The New Politics. Oxford University Press: New York.

[153] A rational analysis of the idea of the state will show not only that we owe duties to the state if we claim rights, but that the state itself has duties, if we allow that it has rights, and if it expects from us the discharge of our obligations. In the development of this idea of reciprocity lies a completer idea of a state; and in this lies a more congenial environment for happiness and virtue. For it is just at the point at which we depart from the reacting democracy of the revolutions of the eighteenth century—i.e., from the pigeon-breasted catch phrases of all right and no duties—it is just where we admit the principle of mutual obligation that we lay the psychological foundations of law and order and of the rational state. For the state is built in the idea of a common life. What is the substance of the word justice but the public good, the common weal? It is here—in the element of reciprocity—that we find the justification of the idea that the state itself has duties as well as rights, and it is through the function of the duties of a state that it proceeds on sound and legitimate lines to ‘promote the general welfare.’


Sir Paul Vinogradoff (1854 – 1925) was a highly reputable Anglo-Russian historian and medievalist. In 1903 he was appointed Corpus professor of jurisprudence in the University of Oxford, and subsequently became a fellow of the British Academy.

Sir Paul Vinogradoff (1854 – 1925) was a highly reputable Anglo-Russian historian and medievalist. In 1903 he was appointed Corpus professor of jurisprudence in the University of Oxford, and subsequently became a fellow of the British Academy.

Vinogradoff, Paul. 1914. Common-Sense in Law. Henry Holt: New York.

[68] The advantage of such a construction of the right is that it enables us to treat it from the point of view of the personal relations between members of a society, which are at bottom the only relations the law can regulate. This notion of property or exclusive ownership which we have to fit into the legal frame in the case under discussion is, after all, a notion entirely produced by the regulation of intercourse between citizens. It is not a natural function in itself…. Therefore the right of ownership is, strictly speaking, quite as much a personal right—the right of one person against other persons—as a right to service, or a lease.

Gettell, Raymond Garfield. 1914. Problems in Political Evolution. Ginn and Company: Boston.

[201] In the eighteenth century men spoke much of natural rights. Life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness, and other similar privileges were considered inalienable rights under the laws of nature. A condition of perfect liberty, existing before governments arose, was conceived, often with a sigh of regret that this ‘state of nature’ could not last forever. Analysis shows the fallacy in such thinking. In a state of nature liberty would be impossible. Each person would have rights only as he could secure them by force. The natural rights of one would encroach upon the natural rights of others, thus destroying the liberty of all. That every person could have liberty to do as he chose in all things is obviously absurd. The greatest amount of liberty possible is the right to do as one pleases while encroaching least on the wishes of others. This secures the largest amount of liberty for all.

Sir Thomas Palmer Whittaker (1850 – 1919) was a British businessman and Liberal Party politician. In parliament he was a committed advocate of the temperance movement and sought reform of the alcohol licensing laws.

Sir Thomas Palmer Whittaker (1850 – 1919) was a British businessman and Liberal Party politician. In parliament he was a committed advocate of the temperance movement and sought reform of the alcohol licensing laws.

Whittaker, Thomas P. 1914. The Ownership, Tenure and Taxation of Land. Macmillan and Co.: London.

[4] What people really mean when they talk of ‘Natural Rights’ is often very difficult to discover. Frequently they talk very loosely, and are obviously confusing natural rights with moral rights and legal rights, and, in the course of any argument which they profess to base on natural rights, they are found tripping gaily from natural rights to moral rights, and then to legal rights, and back again to natural rights, just as it seems to suit then purpose. … When people appeal to nature they appeal arbitrarily to what they happen to like or approve. Different peoples at the same time, and the same peoples at different times, and various sections of the same community, may and often do hold different views as to particular rights and duties, and there is no law-court to which an appeal can be made, from which a binding decision can be obtained. The only sanction or otherwise of an alleged moral right is the approval or disapproval of private individuals—that is of public opinion.

Henry Pratt Fairchild (1880–1956) was a distinguished American sociologist. He wrote about race relations, abortion and contraception, and immigration. He was involved with the founding of Planned Parenthood and served as President to the American Eugenics Society.

Henry Pratt Fairchild (1880–1956) was a distinguished American sociologist. He wrote about race relations, abortion and contraception, and immigration. He was involved with the founding of Planned Parenthood and served as President to the American Eugenics Society.

Fairchild, H. P. 1916. “The Case for the Literary Test,” The Unpopular Review 5(9): 153-170.

[166] Turning now to the positive arguments against the literacy test, they are found to be almost all highly abstract, not to say metaphysical. They have to do with ‘natural rights’ and ‘liberties,with American traditions and duties, with the inherent obligation of the favored to share their blessings with the less fortunate. They all boil down to three simple propositions: The literacy test invades ‘natural rights; it is narrow and illiberal; it is un-American.

The proposition that it violates ‘natural rightsand ‘libertiesis manifestly not an argument, but an assertion, capable neither of proof nor refutation. The whole question of natural rights lies outside the field of logic, and is not a matter for argument. If one sees fit, as one writer on the subject has done, to include among the great natural rights of man ‘the right to choose a home,no amount of reasoning will dislodge him from that position. The best that can be done is to point to another great ‘rightwhich may be absolutely opposed to this, viz.: the right of every nation to protect its interests as against the interests of any individual.

Bosanquet, Bernard. 1916-1917. “The Function of the State in Promoting the Unity of Mankind,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 17 N.S.: 28-57.

[29] I understand by the state the power which, as the organ of the community, has the function of maintaining the external conditions necessary to the best life. These conditions are called rights. They are the claims recognized by the will of a community as the sine qua non of the highest obtainable fulfillment of the capacities for the best life possessed by its members.

[50] Thus it seems clear to me that the organization of rights can only be complete in a community which satisfies the conditions necessary to the possession of a general will; that is to say, a very high degree of common experience, tradition, and aspiration. Such communities are not now to be found except in a nation-state.

Commons, John Rogers. 1919. Industrial Goodwill. McGraw-Hill Company: New York.

[47] For, the struggle of capital and labor is almost never a struggle of individuals. It always involves associations of individuals. The court starts with a fiction that a corporation is a ‘person’ and then holds that an individual worker and an individual corporation are exactly equal, in that the right of one person to quit work is exactly equal to the right of the other person to discharge him. It thereupon declares unconstitutional all the laws in which the legislature tries to protect, against employers, the worker's right to belong to a union, by prohibiting employers from discharging them solely on account of union membership.

These decisions are absurd enough in the case of a corporation, which is obviously an association of capitalists. The right of a worker to quit working for an association of capitalists is by no means equal to the right of the association of capitalists to discharge him.

[112-113] Bolshevistic socialism is generally found in accord with reactionary capitalism, both of them standing firmly on their ultimate principles and natural rights, and both of them preventing the gradual introduction of democracy through half-way measures. The outcome is necessarily revolution and counterrevolution, revolt and reaction.

[129] Duties are as inalienable as rights. The problem of democracy is how to distribute duties as well as rights.

Williams, James Mickel. 1920. The Foundations of Social Science. Alfred A. Knopf: New York

[241] The juristic theory of the eighteenth century was, then, based on the fiction of natural rights.

[245] On the whole, therefore, the influence of the conception of natural rights on legal development in the United States has been to support the position of a reactionary dominant, propertied class. Under the subconscious influence of their upper class bias, judges have assumed that the employer has a natural right to be protected, in the use of his property, from attempts of the legislature to restrict that use for the welfare of employes and for the public welfare.

William Jethro Brown (1868 – 1930) was an Australian jurist and professor of law.  In 1912 he published  The Underlying Principles of Modern Legislation , which was welcomed as a real contribution to political thought. Brown pointed out that the likelihood of greatly increased state activity in the future throws a great responsibility on the teacher and the brains and character of the community.

William Jethro Brown (1868 – 1930) was an Australian jurist and professor of law.  In 1912 he published The Underlying Principles of Modern Legislation, which was welcomed as a real contribution to political thought. Brown pointed out that the likelihood of greatly increased state activity in the future throws a great responsibility on the teacher and the brains and character of the community.

Brown, William Jethro. 1920. The Underlying Principles of Modern Legislation. E. P. Dutton and Co.: New York.

[255] The right to work has two aspects. The first raises the question whether the State ought to recognise a right in the individual to earn his own livelihood in his own way without regard to the effect of his action upon the well-being of workers as a class. Those who assert the existence of such a right assert by implication the equal right of men to freedom. Those who deny the right appeal to the common good.

[257] Assuming the impracticability of a priori methods of determining the rights of the individual, the question whether the State ought to recognise a claim in the individual to demand public employment can only be answered in the affirmative after an examination of several objections.


Mecklin, John Moffatt. 1920. An Introduction to Social Ethics: The Social Conscience in a Democracy. Harcourt, Brace and Howe: New York.

[56] We are trying to solve the problem of the social order in terms of concepts formulated for the most part in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But the individualism demanded by the order cannot be based upon the teachings of John Calvin, John Locke, or Adam Smith. It cannot be defined in terms of the eighteenth century notion of natural rights, that hoary ‘metaphysical jargon’ that ended its long and withal useful career when it served as a text for Charles Sumners turgid philippics against the slave-power in the United States Senate. What is needed is a redefinition and rehabilitation of the notion of the individual in harmony with a closely-knit, self-conscious, social democracy.

[302] A Right is simply a way of acting, of developing capacities or of exercising functions, that is sanctioned by the moral sentiment of the community. The basis of all rights, therefore, including that of private property, is found in the constraining sense of well-being that is common to all the members of the group among whom the right is exercised.

[306] The doctrine of natural rights has exercised a profound influence upon our conceptions of private property. In its most modern form it insists that property is indispensable to man’s individual development and the attainment of liberty. Without the dominion over things he is a slave. It is in the free creative expression of his powers that man achieves personality and freedom. Property is but the external form of this inherent and necessary law of human nature. Hence property is a natural right independent of the laws and institutions of men. This same hoary doctrine of natural rights underlies much of the thinking of to-day.


Benedict, Bertram. 1921. The Larger Socialism. The Macmillan Company: New York.

[218-219] The underlying concept of our present capitalist society is that the individual has a vested right to prosper even at the expense of society, unless the social damage wrought by his success is too glaring and too serious. … Aside from a scanty number of negative checks, it is felt that the state has no right to proscribe the prosperity of the few nor called upon to assure prosperity to the many. Against this individualistically anarchistic philosophy, Socialism sets firmly a social point of view. … But the goal aimed at by Socialism is that of the greatest social welfare, and the standards set by Socialism are social standards.

[221] The larger Socialism recognizes that individualism must be tolerated, even encouraged; not because, as under Capitalism, individualism enjoys vested interests and natural rights, but because it is to the welfare of the whole that the recalcitrant single parts should be allowed to present their case.


Ashley, Roscoe Lewis. 1921. The New Civics. The Macmillan Company: New York.

[11-12] These rights which we have been considering are not safeguarded so much by law as they are by a true sense of civic obligation on the part of parents or the public. Since we are often dealing, however, with individuals who, unlike our parents, may wish the best of the bargain, our rights are defined in the law and are protected by our governments.


Finney, Ross Lee. 1922. Causes and Cures for the Social Unrest. The Macmillan Company: New York.

[18] When we talk about rights, and say that a man has a right to this, that or the other, we usually have social rights in mind. We usually mean that society recognizes such and such to be a man's rights, and that society undertakes to guarantee him the enjoyment of them. This idea of social rights is worth considering. A man may have natural rights, but they will do him little or no good unless they are social rights at the same time. For neither child nor adult, slave nor freeman, can protect his own rights. From the time he begins to cry in the cradle till he lies down for his long sleep, he is helpless unless society stands by him. The guaranteeing of rights is a cooperative enterprise.

[19] The strength of all reforms is in the instinctive recognition of natural rights. Old needs once thwarted are guaranteed by new social rights. Step by step the rights of man correspond more and more nearly to the needs of man. Thus the world grows better. It is the task of each generation to add its little contribution to the social rights of man, to make its little subtraction from the list of thwarted needs.

[20] It is social rights that change, not natural. Social rights change for two reasons. First, society, as it becomes more enlightened and moral, undertakes to guarantee rights that it never before recognized. The new rights of women are a good illustration. Second, new social rights are invented that do all that the old ones did, and more too; then the old rights are in the way, and cease to be rights.


Hobhouse, Leonard T. 1922. Elements of Social Justice. George Allen and Unwin: London.

[31] In social theory this one-sided individualism had its strongest expression in the doctrine of natural rights. … But there is a sense in which the rights and duties of individuals are defined and prescribed in every community from the simplest upwards.

[37] Right involves a moral relation, and is not purely and simply the concern of the owner alone. The rights of men are not therefore conditions precedent to society, but move and have their being in social life. Neither are rights conditions precedent to social welfare, but elements in social welfare and deriving their authority therefrom. … On this principle, then, any ‘right’ which should in any way limit, hinder, or circumscribe the promotion of social welfare would be bad, and anything without bearing thereon would be indifferent. Such a ‘righttherefore would have no title to our respect, which is a contradiction.

[39] Rights and duties, then, are social conditions of social welfare, or as we define such welfare, of a life of harmony. A general right or duty is one in general necessary to social welfare.

[39] [A] true moral right is one which is demonstrably justifiable by relation to the common good, whether it is actually recognized or not.

[62] If…A’s ends and Bs cannot be reconciled, a different question arises. We now have to think not only of their respective wills, characters, opinions, etc., but the results in which these issue, and, as the results are incompatible, we have to choose between them…. Whichever end is supported by the common welfare is a ‘right,which sets a limit to any liberty that might encroach upon it, while itself carrying the liberty to pursue it.


Thilly, Frank. 1923. “Sociological Jurisprudence,” The Philosophical Review 32(4): 373-384.

[383] The new jurisprudence has discovered that rigorous insistence upon individual rights may lead to harm, and it is going back to the original moorings of the liberal movement, to the notion of the common good.


Corbin, Arthur L. 1924. “Rights and Duties,” The Yale Law Journal 33(5): 501-527.

[502] As a working definition, let us suggest that a jural right is a relation existing between two persons when society commands that the second of these two shall conduct himself in a certain way (to act or to forbear) for the benefit of the first. A ‘right’ exists when its possessor has the aid of some organized governmental society in controlling the conduct of another person. The first is said to have a ‘rightagainst the second and the latter a ‘dutyto the first. … If such a unit exists its ‘command’ and its punitive sanction create jural rights and duties.

[503] No recognition can be allowed to such a term as ‘divine right.’ … Not much more need be said of ‘naturalrights than of supernatural or divine rights. Probably the terms often express the same idea.


Wilde, Norman. 1924. “The Meaning of Rights,” International Journal of Ethics 34(4): 283-289.

[291] When we say that a right is a freedom of action possessed by a man in virtue of his occupying a certain place and fulfilling a certain function in a social order, there are ambiguities involved. … As to the first of these interpretations, there is no doubt that we often mean by rights the claims that can be enforced. The basis for these, in this legal sense of the term, is the existence of a law, either in the form of statute or precedent, which defines the freedom and fixes the penalty fort it infringement. The common order that we have found to be implied in all rights is, in these cases, an external one, visible and tangible in the form of statute books, judges, and officers of the law.

[292] It is because society first recognized that certain liberties are due the individual if he is to fulfill his function in life that it takes steps to secure these to him through legal enactment. Although the law is the obvious basis of right, it is public opinion that gave rise to the law and furnishes its effective backing.


Commons, John R. 1968 [1924]. Legal Foundations of Capitalism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

[150-151] Just as a “going business” is but the series of transactions going on between members of a going concern and embers of other concerns in the control of wealth and poverty, so political government is the going business of officials dealing with each other and with citizens in the control of peace and violence. Thus we may employ interchangeably the term “state” and “government.” The state is the going concern of persons associated, the government is their going business. One is the persons who participate in sovereignty, the other is their participation.

So with any other loose of compact, temporary or enduring, association of persons acting as a unit. The family, the church, the club, is a going concern, the transactions of its members are it going business, its working rules keep it going.

Thus there are three types of persons, the citizen, the private concern, and the state, recognized by imputing rights, privileges, powers, immunities and their opposites. They are persons, in that they are more or less free will, or rather discretionary actors, whose future acts may be directed, controlled, prevented, limited by the imposition of duties and exposures, or rewarded or liberated by the grant of rights and liberties. They are persons, in that they have qualities and faculties which may be protected, assisted or restrained according to the distribution of rights and duties. They have their internal economy of proportioning transactions; their external relations of opportunity and power; their expectations of the future. The citizen is a person who is a member of many concerns, and his transactions with other citizens constitute, on one hand, his personality, property, liberty, and citizenship, and on the other hand, his share in the going business and public business of all concerns and of the state.


Blake, Ralph Mason. 1925. “On Natural Rights,” International Journal of Ethics 36(1): 86-96.

[86] At various times in the history of moral and political philosophy the concept of natural rights has played an important and prominent role in the thoughts of men. It has frequently, indeed, been the central and dominating idea of a whole system. At other periods, however—and it is through one of these that we seem at present to be passing—it has fallen out of favor. In many quarters it seems just now to be regarded as an outworn and exploded superstition of the past, and any appeal to the idea is looked upon as evidence of an antiquated and unenlightened approach to the problems of the day. … It would be admitted, I suppose, that, speaking generally, ‘rights’ are correlative with ‘dutiesand are defined by laws. Thus, if we start with the positive law, whether constitutional or statutory, we find that there are many positive laws which define ‘rightsvested in certain individuals or groups of individuals (one of which may be society as a whole).

[87] Natural rights, as their name indicated, are supposed to be based instead upon law on nature itself, independent of any positive enactments of men, and of a higher validity. It is therefore considered possible to contrast merely legal rights with natural rights, and in case of conflict to assert the superior claims of the latter.

[94] In accordance with our previous discussion of the meaning of ‘natural rights’ we must add, however, that ‘natural laws,’ so far as they are to define natural rights, must be principles of permanent, and not of merely transitory, validity, and furthermore that they must be such as are valid for all men everywhere. In other words, the truly natural rights must be those claims, liberties, and privileges the possession of which by the person or persons in question will continue, so long at least as human nature and the laws of the physical universe remain substantially what they now are, to constitute permanent and general conditions of human happiness. … I believe that it is reasonable to hold that there are in this sense natural rights.

[96] …Natural rights have too often been thought of as vested in certain individuals apart from all reference to society and the interests of society. The very definition of a ‘right’ should be sufficient to dispose of such a notion. A right is a claim which ought to be allowed to an individual in view of the general welfare.


Clark, John Maurice. 1925. “Law and Economic Life: II” The University Journal of Business 4(1): 47-70.

[67] One hint we have already gained from reviewing the ideas of Blackstone, who appears quite sound when he is speaking of ‘rights’ in the shape of actual benefits which people receive and enjoy, but whose position begins to appear obsolete and inadequate as soon as he goes on to the procedural relations, the system of wrongs and remedies, which serves to protect substantial benefits. To put it in another way, there appears to be certain natural needs of humanity which are, for all practical purposes, permanent, but the system of legal rights needed to protect theses human needs changes with changing methods of work and conditions of living. These human needs include the requisites of efficient production, and may be extended to include, not merely foods and shelter, but the whole range of necessary incentives.

[68] Using the term in this way, two fundamental propositions stand out. One is that natural rights in this sense must necessarily be inalienable; hence liberty cannot be a natural right to the extent of making it possible to alienate any of the others, and to cut one’s self off from meeting ones minimum of natural needs. A second fact is that it requires very different schemes of duties and remedies to protect these minimum needs in different stages of social development, with the result that, even if there are ‘natural rightsin this sense of needs for substantive benefits, which society cannot afford to see denied, this carries with it no natural system of legal obligations. These must still be treated as adaptable instruments for the attainment of social purposes. There are no eternally natural procedures.


Laski, Harold Joseph. 1930. The Grammar of Politics. Yale University Press: New Haven.

[92] They are rights because they are useful to the end the State seeks to serve. … In any State the demands of each citizen for the fulfillment of his best self must be taken as of equal worth; and the utility of a right is therefore its value to all the members of the State.

[94] Our rights are not independent of society, but inherent in them. … Rights, therefore, are correlative with functions. I have them that I may make my contribution to the social end.

[111] The obvious corollary of the right to an adequate wage is the right to reasonable hours of labour.

[184] No man…has a moral right to property except as a return for functions performed.


Commons, John R. 1931. “Institutional Economics,” The American Economic Review 21(4): 648-657.

[656] Then the working rule is not a foreordained harmony of interests, as assumed in the hypothesis of natural rights or mechanical equilibrium of the classical and hedonic schools, but it actually creates, out of conflicts of interests, a workable mutuality and orderly expectation of property and liberty. Thus conflict, dependence and order become the field of institutional economics, builded upon the principles of scarcity, efficiency, futurity, and limiting factors derived from the older schools, but correlated under the modern notions of working rules of collective action controlling, liberating and expanding individual action.

[657] Thus it may seen how it was that the natural rights ideas of the economists and lawyers created the illusion of a framework, supposed to be constructed in the past, within which present individuals are supposed to act. It was because they did not investigate collective action. They assumed the fixity of existing rights of property and liberty. But if rights, duties, liberties and exposures are simply the changeable working rules of all kinds of collective action, looking towards the future, then the framework analogy disappears in the actual collective action of controlling liberating and expanding individual action for the immediate or remote future production, exchange, and consumption of wealth.


Callcott, Mary S. 1932. Principles of Social Legislation. The Macmillan Company: New York.

[287] The reason first advanced as a basis for the eight-hour working day was one of health, but those now urged as of equal importance are the right of a person to leisure for purposes of education, for citizenship duties and privileges, and for being with his family.


Lippmann, Walter. 1934. The Method of Freedom. The Macmillan Company: New York.

[107] I know that it is not the fashion to speak of the rights of man, and I understand the theoretical and metaphysical objections to the doctrine of natural rights. All rights are, no doubt, ultimately a creation of the state and exist only where they are organized by the government. … To these rights we must add, I believe, the right of access to remunerative work.


McIlwan, C. H. 1936. “Government by Law,” Foreign Affairs 14(2): 185-198.

[185-186] It is law alone that gives protection to rights of any kind in any individual, personal was well as proprietary, whatever form state may take and whatever the nature of social control. In this world struggle between arbitrary will and settled law, it is true that liberalism and democracy are deeply involved.


Soule, George. 1936. The Future of Liberty. The Macmillan Company: New York.

[22] [An unemployed man] has, at least in theory, the right to go where he pleases, to be protected from violence, …to exercise freedom of speech and not to be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. But he does not have the right to earn his living; he is deprived of a functional place in society.


Leighton, Joseph Alexander. 1937. Social Philosophies in Conflict. D. Appleton-Century Company: New York.

[319] In this sense, rights are not fixed and absolute. They are relative to a social function. Rights in general are the social principles necessary for the realization of personality. … There are no absolute rights. The nearest approach to absolute rights are the rights to life and the freedom of one’s own body-mind or self. But even these rights are limited.

[331] The notion of absolute natural rights is fallacious. … Right has no meaning apart from social order.

[332] The natural rights philosophy—the notion of unrestricted freedom, and of progress through society’s resolving itself into a chaos of egoistic atoms, with the State as a police force to keep peace between the warring atoms—was developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries without any basis in history or social fact.


Vannevar Bush (1890 – 1974) was an American engineer, inventor and science administrator, whose most important contribution was as head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) during World War II, through which almost all wartime military R&D was carried out, including initiation and early administration of the Manhattan Project.

Vannevar Bush (1890 – 1974) was an American engineer, inventor and science administrator, whose most important contribution was as head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) during World War II, through which almost all wartime military R&D was carried out, including initiation and early administration of the Manhattan Project.

Bush, Vannervar. 1937. “The Engineer and His Relation to Government,” Science 86 N.S.(2222): 87-91.

[91] As the social machine becomes more complex and interdependent, it becomes increasingly easy for an aggressive group to disrupt it. The need for discipline is greater, the necessity more pressing. Individual freedom, always circumscribed, from the clan up, by the necessity of consideration of the rights of others, becomes inherently narrowed. The right to do this and that ceases to be a right when its performance injures a neighbor; and the ways in which each individual’s acts reflect upon the security of his fellows are constantly multiplied.

Merriam, Charles Edward. 1938. “The Assumptions of Democracy,” Political Science Review 53(3): 328-349.

[344] The nation has not only the right of eminent domain over land but also the right to draft persons for war, and the right to make rules for what it conceives to be the common good.

William J. Randall (1909 – 2000) was a member of the United States House of Representatives. He was a member of the Democratic Party from Missouri. Randall was considered a close ally of Harry Truman. He served on the Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Government Operations.

William J. Randall (1909 – 2000) was a member of the United States House of Representatives. He was a member of the Democratic Party from Missouri. Randall was considered a close ally of Harry Truman. He served on the Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Government Operations.

Randall, W. J. 1938. “The Right and Wrong of Wages,” Social Justice 2A(2): 14-15.

[14] A full-time job at a wage which will enable the worker to live as a rational human being is the right of every man able and willing to work. Anything short that is a violation of justice—a social sin.

[15] Every man has a right to live; but not the right to idle.

Bowden, Witt. 1938. “Freedom for Wage Earners,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 200(Nov.): 185-209.

[208] In order to secure and retain adequate recognition in public opinion and in judicial and administrative policy for the rights of association and collective action, wage earners find continuous effort necessary. When they have obtained recognition of the right of collective action, they can make the right effective only by using their organizations for obtaining the information required for intelligent and fair collective agreements.

Clark, John Maurice. 1939. Social Control of Business. McGraw-Hill Company: New York.

[40-41] As the groundwork of the system of which depressions are the unpalatable fruits, what are the ‘rights’ of persons and property, on the protection and exercise of which the whole system rests? On this point the individualistic arguments was noticeably wobbly, and with good reason. People love to talk as if protecting rights were nothing but preventing wrongs, but they are merely deceiving themselves with the double meaning of words. In fact, many of the legal rights are themselves but the perpetuation and sanctification of moral and social wrongs. … The fundamental rights of persons in our system are supposes to be natural and inalienable, yet, inconsistently enough, the entire fabric is built upon an almost unlimited right to alienate all one’s other rights, and a liberty to alienate everything that makes liberty worth having, everything in which the real and valuable content of liberty consists. A man may alienate his health through patent medicines or through working at an unhealthy trade or merely through unduly long hours or low wages. And what is more, he may be alienating, for his children, the opportunity of a fair start in life. But laws setting limits in his power to alienate these things have sometimes been held unconstitutional. Minor gaps in the system of property and personal rights enable industries to escape payment of many of their real costs, with the result that a financial profit is no guaranty of a balance of economic usefulness to the community. … Thus the system of private industry is perverted at the source, in the system of rights on which its entire social meaning depends.

Lewis, John D. 1940. “The Elements of Democracy,” The American Political Science Review 34(3): 467-480.

[472] Individual rights may be construed as privileges or powers socially recognized as necessary to individual development. Rights do not exist as native equipment of individuals apart from society; social recognition of claims brings them into existence; but there does exist an objective normative basis of rights on the democratic dogma.

[474] In a highly suggestive address on ‘Democracy in Transition,’ the late Dean Walter J. Shepard listed a number of individual rights which are not yet generally recognized, but are now at least within the realm of discussion. This list includes ‘the right of creative work,’ ‘the right to an adequate standard of living,’ ‘the right of the worker…to substantial share in the management of the industry to which he has devoted his labor and his life, ‘the right to security against the hazards of unemployment, accident, illness, and old age,’ ‘the right to the best service that science can provide in the maintenance of health,’ ‘the right to leisure and its effective use.’ … [These rights] do not escape the limits of the democratic theory suggested here.

Meiklejohn, Donald. 1940. “The Civil Liberties in the American Community,” Ethics 51(1): 1-21.

[3] Furthermore, the natural-rights theory is in its Jeffersonian form too sharp, too uncompromising, too ‘absolute.’ It stands committed on its face to the protection of all utterances—anywhere, any time, on any subject. And for this reason the rights it asserts have very properly been charges with arbitrariness. Taken as grounded simply on one part of mens ‘nature,without reference to social interaction, they fail—as many American jurists have argued—to admit of the sensitivity required in social judgment.

Barker, Ernest. 1942. Reflections on Government. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

[30] Civil liberty will be at its greatest when two conditions are established: when rights of private action are clearly defined in ample terms, to cover the widest possible range of such action, and when these rights, so defined, are strictly enforced by definite remedies which can be applied as speedily as possible.

Polanyi, Karl. [1944] 1957. The Great Transformation. Beakon Press: Boston.

[256] The list [to be added to the Bill of Rights] should be headed by the right of the individual to a job under approved conditions….

4L is authored by Daniel B. Klein, Professor of Economics, JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center, George Mason University, Associate Fellow of the Ratio Institute; email: dklein@gmu.edu

Quotations compiled by Ryan Daza & Daniel B. Klein