What Do the Federalist Papers Say About Natural Rights?

March 19, 2024   Joseph Kochanek

  • Rights and Liberties
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What are Natural Rights?
There were many political theorists that referred to natural rights in the two centuries or so before Federalist No. 2 was written. But the concept of natural rights is one about which there was not total agreement among political theorists. This sometimes happens in politics: the way an idea is used in arguments can function as an assertion about its definition. What did John Jay say about natural rights in Federalist No. 2, and what definition did that imply?

“Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights in order to vest it with requisite powers.” (Federalist No. 2)

What Makes Natural Rights Natural?
On this account, people possess natural rights for reasons other than the dictates of a government. Natural rights have often functioned in political theory to describe our rights in a hypothetical pre-political world. How should I be treated, if no government exists to say how I should be treated? In the context of this theory, I have natural rights when not living under government.

Natural Rights as Constituting the Powers of Government
In the context of this theory, even though I have natural rights when not living under government, natural rights have a close connection to the powers of government. This looks like a claim that the government gets its power from the people. How does the government get its ‘requisite powers’? From the people ceding their natural rights to the government. That might seem a strange formulation: what kind of machine is this, that turns rights into power?

How are Rights and Power Related?
I believe we often think of rights as a response to or a protection from the misuse of power. Invoking our rights is frequently in response to some imposition by the state or some other party, and in the USA we use institutions to seek and achieve redress. But that presumes the existence of an institutional framework, whereas natural rights often presume no institutional framework. As described in Federalist No. 2, natural rights look like powers in their own right, powers transferred from individuals to government to create and endow political institutions.