If I woke up on a deserted island, what rights would I have? For my immediate survival, I would need to be mindful of things like food, water, and shelter. The building of shelter, the gathering of food , the securing of water would all involve a certain amount of labor, probably a great deal of labor in the beginning. Would anyone deny that I have the right to the fruits of that labor? Or would someone honestly say that having lashed together some branches to keep the sun off of me, that I then have no natural right to expect to be able to sit under those branches? Having trapped a small animal or dug up an edible root or picked an edible plant, would any sane person then deny me the right to eat? Would it be immoral somehow to drink from the fresh spring I find, or to consume the rainwater I’m able to pool up?
After a few days on the island and with the immediate needs met, my thoughts would probably turn to escape and rescue, or in the interim, improving my lot on the island. I might invest some labor in making my shelter a bit sturdier or a bit more comfortable. I might begin construction on a pen in which I can raise animals for food. I might attempt to devise some sort of signaling mechanism by which a passing ship could be notified of my plight. Would anyone with a modicum of human decency deny me the fruits of this new labor, and if so, on what grounds? Have I violated some moral code by using the tools and talents available to secure my survival and then improve upon my condition?
Months go by, hypothetically, and one day another castaway arrives on the island, whom we’ll call Friday. What rights does he have? Does he have the same rights to his own food, water, shelter? Does he have the same rights to improve his situation? If not, then why not? His presence on the island doesn’t suddenly change my rights or grant him new ones. It would be immoral for me to steal the fruits of his labor, just as it would be equally immoral for him to steal mine. Whatever parts of the island not currently being used by me he has full rights to use just as I had full rights to use what wasn’t being used when I arrived. Assuming he’s not a thief, his arrival on the island doesn’t detract from my life; rather it has the potential to improve it as I now have companionship.
Should the new castaway turn out to be a thief or prone to violence, do I have the right to defend myself and repel whatever force he chooses to bring to bear against me, or am I morally obligated to simply passively allow his plunder? Should larceny enter my heart, does the new arrival have the same right to repel my advances? If not, why not? Barring any threat of violence, or larceny on either of our parts, is there any moral reason why this new arrival and I might not co-exist indefinitely?
As time passes on our island it becomes apparent that the castaway and I have different strengths and abilities. I notice his signaling device seems to be more efficient than mine while he might notice that my animal herds produce more meat than his due to my advanced husbandry skills. . Now of course, I could simply take his signaling device for myself, but not only would that be immoral, but I would be at a loss to fix it if it breaks. Is there a moral way to rectify this discrepancy? Of course there is! I could trade him some meat in exchange for his mechanical skills, or we could exchange mechanical knowledge for husbandry knowledge. Through mutual trade, I wind up with a better signaling device and he winds up with better meat. It benefits me to find something he wants that I can trade for something I want, and rather than engage in plunder, use my new companion as a resource. With respect to our natural rights, both of our lots can improve. The island itself becomes more productive and conducive to sustaining life by our pooled energies. We could cooperate when it benefited us, and still keep to ourselves. No one would lose their rights, and everyone could live in peace.
Notice that I and my imaginary companion exist with no legislature, no constitution, no president, no parliament. Our rights flow not from a piece of parchment, or some assembled body, but rather from our inherent position as living men. As long as we understand what does and does not belong to us, and we both exercise morality, life continues on. We are free to exercise charity towards one another, and may find some benefit in doing so, but neither of us lives at the expense of another.
But suppose one day a third castaway arrived on the island, and from the very beginning he was trouble. This castaway decides that the resources on the island being infinite, someone should decide on the distribution of those resources. This new arrival is deaf to my explanation that things have been running fine until now, and that he is more than free to exercise his talents and labor to his own benefit until the day of our mutual rescue. This new arrival begins to talk to Friday. He tells Friday how unfair it is that I, being the initial island resident, have a more established structure, and a more established way of procuring food. This new castaway, whom we’ll call the State, promises that, if Friday will support him, he will take from me and give to Friday. For the first time since his time on the island, larceny enters Friday’s heart.
Now I will probably look at the newcomer with the same pity that one would bestow upon a madman. After all, simply proclaiming that my labours belong to Friday has about as much real impact as proclaiming the sky to be green. Then I notice the real danger of the State when I begin to count weapons on the island, and realize that I am outnumbered in both weaponry and sentiment.
Now the State needs to confer legitimacy upon what he’s doing because although larceny has entered Friday’s heart, he still doesn’t see himself as a thief. So the state talks a great deal about fairness and equity, and the common good, all of which are obviously code words for plunder, but the thin veneer of these words provide enough of a protection from Friday’s conscience that he goes along. In fact, the state proclaims, to make certain that all is fair and equitable, we should have a vote. What could be more fair than a vote in which the majority prevails? I try to reason with Friday, and point out the madness of deciding by a vote whether or not it is moral to plunder. The State tells Friday after our discussion that my resistance is rooted in my own selfishness, and that it’s imperative that the vote happen, and redistribution commence. When the vote finally does happen, I cast my vote lest I have no say so whatsoever, and the final result is 2 to 1 against my rights. Under threat of violence, the State takes some of my best animals and gives the meat to Friday, after taking the first portion for himself.
The vote casts legitimacy upon the plunder, as do the carefully chosen phrases, but the act itself is still plunder, and by promising to steal on Friday’s behalf, the State has afforded tremendous power to himself, and destroyed not only the relationship previously enjoyed by the two of us prior to his arrival, but he has set a precedent of plunder. Friday’s newly enflamed idea of fairness knows no bounds, and every slight, real or imaginary, every disparity between my abilities and his is seen as an affront to this false fairness. Over and over again violence or the threat of it is employed while the siren song of fairness and equity slowly sears Friday’s conscience. Plunder can’t be plunder if its done to level the playing field, can it?
The State at some point in this nightmare begins to confer upon himself special privileges and powers, instituted solely in the pursuit of fairness of course. He begins to wear special , rather silly clothes with badges and vestments of his own design draped all over them. These trinkets, the State tells us, are just symbols of the high trust he carries. He may even bemoan a bit the burden he carries, and demand our respect as he plays his twisted game. Any insult to him is an insult to the very idea of fairness, and any opposition to him is an opposition to his brand of legalized plunder. His opponents are enemies of the State, and Friday, my once stalwart companion becomes his most devoted acolyte. Any attempts to overthrow him are met with force, and after a time on the island, he claims that for the greater good, he should exercise a monopoly on force. My weapons are taken first, but soon after Friday hands his over.
The State claims that if anyone is unhappy with the job being done, they are free to leave. It doesn’t seem relevant that Friday and I were there first, or that life was better when two free men lived under a code of morality at peace with each other or that our rights predate the State’s arrival. All that matters in the revisionist island history that the State trots out, is the State’s idea of fairness. After a while, my ingenuity and drive wither away as I watch the State plunder me on someone else’s behalf. I begin to produce just enough to survive the rapacious State appetite. This, the State claims, is also selfishness.