For instruction on how to regulate society it’s hard to go past the 10 Commandments. By comparison, according to Thomson Reuters’ Legal Encyclopedia, Australian governments have enacted over 40,000 Commandments. So when God distils everything down to 10, and then applies 2 of them to the protection of people’s property – do not steal (Commandment No 7) and do not covet your neighbour’s goods (Commandment No 10) – it’s reasonable to assume it is an important subject.
Commandment No 7 – ‘Covet’, the old-fashioned word for ‘envy’ – wanting what someone else has – is a sin. Not to be confused with ‘jealousy’ – not wanting someone else to take what you have – which is not a sin. Envy and jealousy are not the same, in fact they are the exact opposite of each other.
Laws that say, ‘do not steal’ clearly imply there are things which belong to other people that you are not permitted to take. It is their property and they have a right to keep it. This principle clearly pre-dates governments. Property Rights became one of the key features of the Magna Carta (1215) the world’s pre-eminent document on Human Rights.
Over the centuries, after both the 10 Commandments and the Magna Carta were instituted, two schools of thought evolved regarding the basis of power in society – ‘people first, government second’, and ‘government first, people second’. In other words, did people have intrinsic rights first – freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, freedom to enjoy their property, etc – and then establish governments to protect those rights or does the state come first and have the power to grant (or withdraw) the above rights and freedoms?
It’s an important question, particularly in a democracy like ours where we say ‘the majority rules’. But does the majority have the right to do whatever it wants to a minority or to an individual? Can ‘the majority rules’ principle, for example, be used to create a society of say 1st and 2nd class citizens who can be denied their ‘freedom of speech, freedom of movement and freedom of property’?
‘Might is right’ or ‘the tyranny of the majority’ were expressly rejected by the Magna Carta and rights were therefore entrenched into English law.
Phrases like ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ might sound OK – until it results in overbearing constraints on minorities and individuals or, for example, in arbitrary arrest and/or search.
No society could survive for long with such laws – even if the majority agrees.