I have often witnessed even those who are struggling to preserve their freedom complain about other people "taking away" their rights. Whether the issue is censorship or self-defense or education, this lament is a common one. In classroom discussions, many of the college students I teach use similar language in arguing over various hot-button issues. Given the current climate of hysterical overreaction to the real (but exaggerated) threat posed by terrorists, pundits and pols wrangle over the degree to which certain rights will or must be "taken away" in exchange for a greater (illusory) safety.
Unfortunately, the very notion that (fundamental) rights can be "taken" from an individual is a common misconception. Too many citizens wrongly believe that the Constitution or the government "grants" or "gives" them rights. If this were true, then, of course, those "rights" could be "taken away" by those who provided them in the first place. This intellectual mistake echoes that found in the false belief that individuals can be partially "free." (See my essay, "One Freedom.") Yes, we can parse what is meant by "semi-free" or having rights "taken" from us. Still, precision in such basic concepts is crucial if we are adequately to defend ourselves from the collectivists and statists who surround us.
In order to understand the error involved, those fighting for liberty must first comprehend what (foundational) rights are.
Fundamental human rights are those that apply equally to everyone (as opposed to specific derivative rights selectively acquired, for example, through contract). These rights come from the necessity of individuals to enact their moral choices in a social context. The very concept of morality requires that humans possess free will; that they have the ability to focus their minds; that they can and do make selections among alternatives to decide how to live. In other words, each individual has a right to his or her own life and the right to live that life as he or she sees fit.
Ayn Rand pointed out that, while a moral or ethical code is a condition of proper human existence even when someone is alone, "rights" become a prerequisite only when individuals interact with other people. Since people differ on the judgments they make about issues confronting them, subsequent courses of action (goals) they seek may clash with those sought by others. "Rights" determine what kinds of behavior must be accepted even by those who (may violently) disagree and what kinds of behavior must be prohibited so people are able to follow the direction of their own minds, their own values, their own moral principles.
As Leonard Read phrased it (in the book of the same name), "anything that's peaceful" must be respected and tolerated by other people and especially by the State. Indeed, the only proper purpose of the State is to ensure that the sphere of our freedom is not violated.
When does such a violation occur? Whenever a person or group uses or tries to use coercive force to prevent someone from engaging in the voluntary, peaceful action that he has determined (correctly or wrongly) is best for his existence. A prime protector of that freedom from improper interference is the idea and the reality of (private) property rights.
Since a person is not a ghost, he requires physical sustenance and a physical realm to support his nonphysical self, that is, his mind, his spirit, his intellect. Underlying these aspects of who he is is the self-conscious, volitional faculty that enables him to engage in freewill choices. His moral code guides him in selecting certain actions that maintain and advance the self that must operate among other people. Thus, his choices and behavior must be protected by rights so the individual can prosper or suffer according to how well his decisions match the requirements of reality.
Ultimately, then, the basic right that each of us enjoys is a right to action. Even our property rights are "...a right to action...and the consequences of producing or earning" a particular piece of property. (Ayn Rand, "Man's Rights," in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 94.) The use of the physical property upon which are lives depend for sustenance is thus derived from our general right to engage in independent, peaceful, noncoercive action.
For a right to be valid, all people must be able simultaneously to exercise that right, i.e., it must be compossible. Every (peaceable) person has the right to his life, has the right to make decisions, has the right to attempt to implement those choices (as long as he respects the same rights of others), has the right to enjoy the consequences of good decisions.
No one -- ever -- can conceivable "take away" such rights.
What the destructive people of the world can do, however, is prevent you from being able to exercise your rights. By using coercive force, they can take away your ability to perform those actions you have a right to perform. Even slaves in the most abject circumstances retain their full complement of fundamental rights. If they could somehow "lose" the right to their own lives, how could anyone argue that they then have a "right to be free"?
An offender who initiates direct or indirect coercive force against other people has proclaimed that he does not consider himself bound by the same principles as others. By his own choice, he has renounced his desire to live a peaceable existence. He has decided that it is okay for him to prevent others from adhering to the dictates of their own minds. He seeks a way-one street: the "right" to seize or harm the property or lives of others. He has declared that he does not care to accept the propriety of compossible rights and will not be bound by them. By his behavior, he sets himself in opposition to the objective requirements of social life. In doing so, he has put himself at war with reality.
That is a conflict he is doomed to lose.
No matter how much property of others a thief illicitly accumulates, the owners of that property still retain their right to that property. No matter how many peaceable individuals a transgressor physically restrains for years or decades, those sufferers have the right to be free of the criminal's bars and chains. No matter how many innocent citizens a monster kills -- either directly or through hired thugs -- those dead men and women and children had a right to continue living a life of their own choosing.
Whether the outlaw is a lone robber, whether he is a member of a gang or a mob, or whether he is a politician elected to office or a bureaucrat appointed to "regulate" the behavior of strangers makes no difference. No such predator retains a basic right to his life as a free individual. He has surrendered that right, abrogated that right, abandoned that right as irrelevant to a human existence. Anyone who halts the unwarranted violence practiced by such a person has "taken" nothing from the wrongdoer. The defender -- the victim -- has merely removed an obstacle to his own life, his own liberty. The prey seeks only to keep what is his. In stopping the malefactor, he has "taken away" nothing from his enemy that the latter deserved.
Yes, we can lose our rights -- through our own actions -- by violating the rights of others. But no one -- ever -- has the ability to take away our own rights.