Today we tend to think about natural rights as non-positivist claims to limits on governmental authority — typically claims derived from religion, morality, or logic. These “rights,” by their very definition, exist independent of governmental control. Indeed, that is what makes them “natural.” This Essay, responding to Randy Barnett's Our Republican Constitution, sketches a different view of Founding-Era natural rights, their relationship to governmental authority, and their enforceability. With the exception of certain “rights of the mind,” natural rights were not really “rights” at all, in the sense of being determinate legal privileges or immunities. Rather, embracing natural rights meant embracing a mode of reasoning. And the crux of the idea — in stark contrast to the modern notion of “natural rights” — was to create a representative government that best served the public good. The Founding-Era idea of “natural rights” thus called for judicial deference to legislative judgments, and it favored broader governmental power just as much as limits to that power. In short, natural rights called for good government, not necessarily less government.

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Book Review

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A book review for Our Republican Constitution: Securing the Liberty and Sovereignty of We the People by Randy E. Barnett.