Individual liberties, property, and representative governmentby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
Trace the origins of the concepts of individual liberties, private property, and representative government.
Throughout its history mankind has seen many different leaders come to power. With this has inevitably come a vast array of social, political, and economic theories and practices. No earthly civilization lasts forever; even the best and brightest eventually fall. Patterns emerge in looking back at the rise and fall of civilizations. Individual liberties, private property, and representative governments have emerged throughout history in various forms. Looking back on these three characteristics of society give valuable insight towards understanding the current world as well as any decisions about the foundations and formations of government that might arise in the future.
Even tracking civilizations back as early as the Hebrews provides context for these three aspects of government and society. Instead of promoting communal property sharing, many verses in the Old Testament of the Bible imply the possession of private property. The concept of tithing emerges as far back as Genesis when Abraham gave a tenth of everything to God.1 Tithing implies that God has granted us stewardship over property and possessions during our time on earth. It also appears to indicate that in ancient Hebrew society individual citizens possessed personal property rather than the government owning everything. Leviticus 27:30 says, “A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD.” (NIV) An even more obvious indication of personal property among the Hebrews emerged in Deuteronomy 27:17: “Cursed is the man who moves his neighbor’s boundary stone.” (NIV)
Furthermore, the Hebrews also had individual liberty, or personal rights, granted to them. Exodus 20:17 lists the Ten Commandments as laws for the Hebrews to obey. And Leviticus 19:13-16 says, “Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight. Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD. Do not pervert justice, do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD.” While these may appear at first to infringe on personal rights rather than protect them, the answer becomes clearer upon examining the consequences of such rules. Laws protect individual rights because they require that a man not take away the rights of another while pursuing his own.
Lastly, in Exodus 18 a conversation takes place between Moses and his father-in-law Jethro about what could be called the judicial system of the Hebrew government. “Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must bring the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them the decrees and laws and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform. But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.”2 Jethro and Moses attempted to put into place a representative form of government that would protect the interests of the Hebrew people and honor God. By choosing honorable men from among each group to handle the small disputes and present the large ones to Moses, Jethro tried to create a situation where the interests of the Hebrew people would not be ignored but rather handled in a manner that brought glory to God.
The Greeks and Romans had similar institutions and provisions as the ones listed above. “[Typical Greek farms] were usually quite small, and only produced enough food to support a single family. They were worked by the owner, his family and a few hired hands or slaves.”3 Both civilizations eventually established governments that included elections: Greek had a democracy and Rome a republic. Greece had a council of a representative group of citizens who “drew up new laws and policies.”4 And in Greece “every citizen had a right to speak and to vote at the Assembly, which met about once every ten days on a hill called the Pnyx. At least 6000 citizens had to be present for a meeting to take place . . . The Assembly debated proposals which were put to it by the Council . . . It could approve, change or reject the Council’s suggestions.”5 Rome, on the other hand, had a Senate from which the citizens elected their government representatives on a yearly basis.6 And each society worked to protect the rights of its citizens. Greece had a court system and jury made up from volunteering citizens.7 The Town of Hercules describes an ancient court case between a young girl and her mother’s former master. The master, Calatoria, wanted to contest that the girl, Justa, was a slave and therefore could not inherit the property her mother had left her. The description of this case gives an insight into how the Roman legal system worked.
The case began with a hearing before a Herculaneum magistrate in the Basilica, which was the town’s courthouse. Plaintiff (Calatoria) and defendant (Justa) stated their positions. The magistrate concluded that the case, which involved complex legal questions, should be heard before a judge, with witnesses, affidavits, and sworn testimony. He fixed bail for the appearance of both parties in the amount of 1,000 silver sesterces each. The pay of a Roman soldier for an entire year was 1,000 sesterces. . . Eventually, the case came before a judge. It was the judge, not the lawyers (advocates), who had the authority to cross-examine witnesses. Once again the positions of both parties were stated, this time by advocates. No written records could be found to support the positions of either Calatoria or Justa. So witnesses were called. Affidavits were read aloud.8
Today the United States has a government that bears some similarities to each of these three ancient civilizations. The second paragraph in the United States’ Declaration of Independence says:
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, that whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.9
This clearly states that men have the right to individual liberties; they have certain rights that no one should take away from them. But note also that in carrying out “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” men cannot do anything that infringes on the “unalienable Rights” of another. Furthermore, this paragraph characterizes a government created to serve the people and to protect their rights. Men have the right to privately own property and this helps to stimulate the economy. “Publicly owned property destroys man’s sense of responsibility to use his possessions wisely, because there is not incentive for selfish men to treat the property wisely.”10 In hindsight, patterns easily emerge and one can trace the existence and development of individual liberties, private property, and representative government to understand that these concepts have far deeper roots than most people realize.
1. _____ earthly civilizations last forever.
2. The author uses some verses that contain tithing as support for ______.
a. Individual liberties
b. Private property
c. Representative government
3. The government of ancient Greece contained all of the following except ____.
a. A council of a representative group of citizens who “drew up new laws and policies.”
b. An “Assembly debated proposals which were put to it by the Council . . . It could approve, change or reject the Council’s suggestions.”
c. A Senate from which the citizens elected their government representatives on a yearly basis.
4. The current government of the United States of America contains or allows
a. Individual liberties
b. Private property
c. Representative government
d. All of the above
1 The Holy Bible. Genesis 14:20. NIV.
2 The Holy Bible. Exodus 18:19-21. NIV.
3 The Usborne Book of the Ancient World (Tulsa: EDC Publishing) 120.
4 Usborne 156.
5 Usborne 156.
6 Usborne 203.
7 Usborne 156.
8 Joseph Jay Deiss, The Town of Hercules (Malibu: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1995) 106-109.
9 The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.
10 David A. Noebel, Understanding the Times (Colorado Springs: ACSI/Summit Ministries, 1995) 327.
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