In today’s Journal, Donald Luskin defends Atlas Shrugged as “a plea for the most fundamental American ideal—the inalienable rights of the individual.”
Where does one start? What are “rights” in a universe where there is no morality other than what can be derived from the value one places on one’s own life, and no metaphysics other than materialism plus some more or less trivial residuum to allow for sense perception and volition? If rights are not correlative to duties that transcend our will – and on Rand’s view it is a matter of first principles that there are no duties transcending the will – then what are they? And how can they possibly be “inalienable” if one is morally subject to no will above one’s own?
The original idea behind the phrase “inalienable rights” was that rights are inalienable because they are correlative to duties and responsibilities that exist objectively and transcend the will, and that we are therefore not allowed to shirk. You are not allowed to consent to dictatorial government even if you want to, because that’s inconsistent with your fulfillment of the transcendent duties that you are under, and that are partially constitutive of who you are as a person. This was a point of central importance – for some purposes it was the point of central importance – in the political philosophies behind the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution, from which the phrase “inalienable rights” historically sprang. The argument on the other side (at least among social contract theorists) was that you consent to the king’s absolute authority when you participate in civil society. The word “inalienable” was inserted to deny this, and the only possible justification for it is the existence of transcendent duties.