John Stuart Mill, ostensibly a proponent of individual freedom, wrote in Principles of Political Economy:
But it is not so with the Distribution of Wealth. That is a matter of human institution solely. The things once there, mankind, individually or collectively can do with them as they like. They can place them at the disposal of whomsoever they please, and on whatever terms. Further, in the social state, in every state except total solitude, any disposal whatever of them can only take place by the consent of society, or rather of those who dispose of its active force. Even what a person has produced by his individual toil, unaided by anyone, he cannot keep, unless by the permission of society. Not only can society take it from him, but individuals could and would take it from him, if society only remained passive; if it did not either interfere en masse, or employ and pay people for the purpose of preventing him from being disturbed in the possession. The distribution of wealth, therefore, depends on the laws and customs of society. The rules by which it is determined are what the opinions and feelings of the ruling portion of the community make them, and are very different in different ages and countries; and might be still more different, if mankind so chose.
Mill argues that, because an individual’s keeping of their property depends on government protection, then the decision-making power of who has wealth and who does not, and to what degree, lies with the government, or for Mill, a majority decision of the people.
This is false. First, an individual does not rely upon the government to protect them from a thief — they can defend themselves if they choose. They depend first on themselves, just as they depended upon themselves to create the property in question, or earn the capital to obtain it.
But second, Mill has this relationship backward. Humans, individuals, exist before government or society. They can create without it. Government is as man-made a tool as any other, and like all tools, was created to serve a purpose — and that purpose is the protection of the individual’s rights.
Why do we have rights? Because humans are rational beings, which exist and succeed only through our ability to use our minds.
Some claim that this is false, because man is not rational, but an emotional animal, one that feels rather than thinks, holds deluded wishes and flails blindly when they are not met. They point to examples of people committing terrible atrocities — murder, genocide, holocaust, robbery — and argue that no rational being could do that.
Others claim that man is all too rational, that reason leads to these atrocities, and if only man felt more, the world would be a much better place.
But see the inherent contradiction in the first claim. If one claims that man is irrational, and then attempts to justify it with evidence — they are using reason, they are thinking. Their very thought that man is irrational, as wrong as it is, makes it impossible for it to be true.
The second claims that harming others for your own gain is rational, and thus reason is our problem. Is it rational to rob someone? To murder them?
Reason — and by its extension, self-interest — is quite simple. At its base, reason is the recognition that one thing is itself. A tree is a tree, and not a dog; that A is A, that reality exists. Reason is to recognize this, and apply it.
The first objection is partly correct — no rational being could commit those acts. Reason is not a state humans are locked in — reason is a choice. They have chosen to deny reality.
Reason, rationality, is a choice, and it is man’s means of survival. Humans cannot live through blind struggle — they can only live through thought. Fire was not discovered by unthinking beasts, but by individuals observing, learning, and creating. But it is by choice.
Humans can either choose to live, or choose to die — that is their choice. But their life is their purpose. I exist to live, reason is my means, happiness my measure.
Individuals cannot live without recognizing reality. I will die if I claim and believe that I do not require food and water to live. No matter how faithful I am in this belief, no matter how strongly I deny I require food and water, it can only lead to death.
For any human which wants to live, and succeed, their life is their value. To hold your life as your value is also, if one is honest, to grant that other people’s lives hold the same value. If you value your life, you must value the lives of others, which means you cannot harm theirs. You must deal with them through voluntary choice, just as you would want them to do unto you.
To value their own life, and make happiness their purpose, the rational man creates a guiding rule for them: they will always recognize reality.
If I mean to write a great novel, but rather than write it I steal someone else’s work and publish it as my own, I have gained nothing. My novel, even if it is a financial and critical success, is a fraud — I still did not write it. I have only tried to deny the reality that I did no real work and the novel is not my genius. I gain no happiness — just the sadness, shame and guilt of defrauding myself and others. What is wealth and recognition worth when I have gained it through stealing? Nothing.
To value one’s life, then, is to live for real achievement. Real achievement cannot come from defrauding others — it is only derived from productive work, thought, and mutual consent of others where they are involved.
This is where rights are derived. Because people properly value their life, and with it (because they are inseparable) their liberty and property, they form, or accept, government. Government comes after the individual. It is created to protect their rights from violation, and that is its only proper purpose.
In this way, Mill has his relationship backward; he states that the individual can only retain his property because of government, but in reality, government can only exist to protect the individual’s rights and still be moral.
The “distribution of wealth” in society depends on the voluntary arrangement of individuals, not the laws and customs of society. How wealth is “distributed” properly depends as much on “laws and customs” as it does robbery, but it is an unjustifiable distribution. Any law which requires the taking of an individual’s property is robbery, a violation of his rights, and thus a violation of the government’s reason to exist. Any government which does so is illegitimate.