Where do our human rights come from? According to the Declaration of Independence,
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
Our rights, according to the Declaration, are ours because God gave them to us: we have certain rights by virtue of being human. Just because of who and what we are we have rights which cannot be taken away from us.
Okay, so what happens when (for example) a government pretends to grant us those human rights, and presumes on that basis to have the authority to withhold them from us when it deems fit? In the event that this happens, that government will have usurped its authority. It will have taken upon itself powers which it intrinsically lacks, and to the extent that it abridges human rights it has delegitimized itself.
This seems rather obvious on the face of it, I suppose, but sometimes we need to have cold water thrown in our faces. The truth may be obvious, but that does not mean it is always acknowledged. Sometimes we have to be reminded of what we should never forget. Pope Leo XIII gave us such a reminder in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (aside from many other reminders in that excellent document). In particular I have in mind what the Pope had to say about the family as one example of what I am talking about:
Hence we have the family, the “society” of a man’s house – a society very small, one must admit, but none the less a true society, and one older than any State. Consequently, it has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State. (RN 12)
Families do not exist at the whim of the State, as though they are some kind of stop-gap to hold things together only because the State lacks the resources to fill the role of the family. So if a court (or some other agent of the State) pretends to be the source of the family’s authority, we may be sure that it does not know what it is talking about, or that it is attempting to exercise an authority which it emphatically lacks.
So it is with all our natural human rights. The State does not grant them to us, and consequently it cannot withhold them from us (though I would not deny that a prudential regulation of them may in some cases be necessary for the common good, of course: I am not allowed to shout Fire in a crowded theater unless there really is one, and this is for the best). We need to remember where our rights come from. If we forget, we may acquiesce in the day when usurpers take them away from us. Ideas have consequences, and to forget the idea that our natural human rights are ours by nature and not by the State’s whim or donation is to become helpless in the face of tyranny.