Of Rights and the Radicalism of Benjamin Franklin

As I noted in another post a couple of months ago, Benjamin Franklin wrote the following to his friend, the great financier of the Revolution, Robert Morris, in December 1783, while Minister Plenipotentiary of the infant United States in Paris,

The remissness of our people in paying taxes is highly blameable, the unwillingness to pay them is still more so.  I see in some resolutions of town meetings, a remonstrance against giving Congress a power to take, as they call it, the people’s money out of their pockets, though only to pay the interest and principal of debts duly contracted.  They seem to mistake the point.  Money justly due from the people is their creditor’s money, and no longer the money of the people, who, if they withhold it, should be compelled to pay by some law.  All property, indeed, except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, his matchuat, and other little acquisitions absolutely necessary for his subsistence, seems to me to be the creature of public convention.  Hence the public has the right of regulating descents, and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it.  All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual, and the propagation of the species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of; but all property superfluous to such purposes, is the property of the public, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may, therefore, by other laws, dispose of it whenever the welfare of the public shall desire such a disposition.  He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire, and live among the savages!  He can have no right to the benefits of society, who will not pay his club towards the support of it.

Today such a comment would position Franklin as a radical well to the left of Paul Krugman, but, so far as I can tell, neither Morris nor the editor of the American Quarterly Review who published the letter along with a number of other interesting pieces of diplomatic correspondence 50 years later, thought the comment in the least extreme.  That may be because it seemed so out of the question at the time that anyone would be seriously inconvenienced by such a doctrine.  The U.S. government, both in Franklin’s day and 50 years later, was both miniscule and frugal by today’s standards.  As Franklin put it in another letter written in 1778 to a couple of Englishmen who had sent him an insulting missive ridiculing the very possibility that the American colonies could survive as an independent republic,

The weight, therefore, of an independent empire, which you seem certain of our inability to bear, will not be so great as you imagine; the expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small.  A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed, determining, as we do, to have no offices of profit, nor any sinecures, or useless appointments, so common in ancient or corrupted states.  We can govern ourselves a year for the sum you pay in a single department, for what one jobbing contractor, by the favour of a minister, can cheat you out of in a single article.

Obviously, he was not looking ahead to the day when we, too, would become an “ancient and corrupted” state with a budget that dwarfs anything ever heard of in 1778.  An interesting aspect of Franklin’s first quote above is his discussion of rights.  He believes that the state, or at least a democratic state, has a right to take at need whatever property a person has over and above that necessary to preserve life and support the family.  I doubt that many citizens of the United States today would agree that such a right exists.  This begs the question of how and if rights may acquire legitimacy.

In fact, rights are like good and evil, in that they can never acquire objective legitimacy.  They have no independent existence other than as the perception of phenomena that occur in the brains of individuals.  As such, it makes no sense to ask whether they are legitimate or illegitimate, justified or not justified.  There can be no basis for making such a judgment for things that are the outcomes of mental processes of individual brains.  There is no way that they can jump out of those brains and become things in themselves.  It is no more possible to assign qualities such as legitimate or illegitimate to them than to a dream.  Franklin was therefore wrong to claim that “the people” have a right to confiscate wealth without qualification, and his modern day opponents would be equally wrong to claim that individuals have a right to keep a greater share of their wealth than Franklin admits.  Such claims assume the independent existence of rights.  However, they have no such existence.  The drawing up of lists of rights, whether human or animal or otherwise, are efforts in futility unless the nature of rights is properly understood.  It is impossible for them to be self-evident.  To the extent that they exist at all, they exist as conventions within groups, and they are effective only to the degree to which they are accepted and defended.

When people are asked to explain why they believe some right or moral judgment is legitimate, they commonly respond either by citing the authority of a God, or by claiming that they would serve some greater good.  In the first case, one is simply arguing that absolute power and legitimacy are interchangeable.  The second amounts to basing one good on another good, which, in turn, can only be justified by citing yet another good beyond it.  One can continue constructing such a daisy chain of goods ad nauseum, but no link in the chain can ever stand by itself.  The qualities “legitimate” and “illegitimate” are irrelevant to the moral intuitions of individuals because it is impossible for those intuitions to acquire such qualities.

I do not claim that human societies can exist without such concepts as “good,” “evil,” and “right.”  I merely suggest that they are likely to be most effective and useful in regulating our societies if they are properly understood.

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