(Editor’s note: This essay appeared as the first chapter in FEE’s 1994 anthology, Cliches of Politics. Charles W. Baird is a professor of economics emeritus at California State University at East Bay.)
The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) is proud to partner with Young America’s Foundation (YAF) to produce “Clichés of Progressivism,” a series of insightful commentaries covering topics of free enterprise, income inequality, and limited government.
Our society is inundated with half-truths and misconceptions about the economy in general and free enterprise in particular. The “Clichés of Progressivism” series is meant to equip students with the arguments necessary to inform debate and correct the record where bias and errors abound.
The antecedents to this collection are two classic FEE publications that YAF helped distribute in the past: Clichés of Politics, published in 1994, and the more influential Clichés of Socialism, which made its first appearance in 1962. Indeed, this new collection will contain a number of essays from those two earlier works, updated for the present day where necessary. Other entries first appeared in some version in FEE’s journal, The Freeman. Still others are brand new, never having appeared in print anywhere. They will be published weekly on the websites of both YAF and FEE: www.yaf.org and www.FEE.
#10 – “I Have a Right!”
Lots of people make this claim without even thinking about the nature and source of rights. What are rights, and where do they come from?
The progressive or interventionist view is that so long as legislation is adopted under the rules of procedural due process, government creates and extinguishes rights. For example, Congress, by following the rules of legislative process outlined in the Constitution, can create or extinguish a right to a job, a right to an education, or a right to food.
When progressives wish to expand the scope of government they often make a distinction between a “privilege” and a “right.” In this view, something is a privilege only if a person can acquire it through his own means; something is a right if government uses tax money or other coercive powers to provide it to individuals, irrespective of their means. Really important things, progressives say, ought to be rights, not privileges. Thus health care in America was once a privilege, but now it’s touted in both rhetoric and law as a right.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote about “unalienable” rights that all individuals have irrespective of government. According to him, all humans are “endowed” with these rights by God. Some of Jefferson’s colleagues said that “nature” endowed humans with rights—that is, that rights are inherent in human nature. In either case, rights are logically prior to government. Government has no legitimate authority to add to or subtract from such rights. Its role is to protect them.
If something is a human right in the Jeffersonian sense, it applies to all individuals merely by virtue of their humanity. If one person has such a right, all other humans must logically have the same right. One cannot, without self-contradiction, claim a human right for himself and deny it to others. To do so would be to admit that the right is not a “human” right.
Moreover, it must be possible for all individuals to exercise the claimed right simultaneously without logical contradiction. If, when I exercise a right I have claimed, it is thereby impossible for someone else to exercise the identical right at the same time, my action implies that the alleged right does not inhere in human nature. My action implies that it is my right and not the right of the other person.
For example, suppose I claim a right to a job. If that claim means that I will be employed any time I wish to be (what else could it mean?), there must be some other person who has the duty to provide the job. But then that other person does not have the same right I have. My right is to be employed, his “right” is to provide the job. My right creates a duty for him to undertake some positive action that he may not want to undertake. Notwithstanding that we both are human, his freedom of choice is subordinated to my freedom of choice.
Is there any job-related fundamental human right in the Jeffersonian sense? Yes, it is the right of all individuals to offer to buy or sell labor services at any terms they choose. I have a right to offer to sell my labor services at terms I like, and so do you. We all can exercise that right without thereby denying it to anyone else. I have a right to offer to buy (employ) the labor services of any other person at terms I like, and so do you. We can do so without thereby denying the right to anyone else. Those to whom you and I extend our offers are free to reject them. In exercising these rights we impose no duty to undertake any positive action on any other person.
Apply the same test to the right to food, the right to an education, and the right to health care. Are any of these fundamental human rights? If they are interpreted to mean that individuals will receive food, education, and health care no matter what other people want, they are not fundamental human rights. We all have a fundamental right to offer to buy or sell food, education services, and health care at any terms we like, but if we cannot find others who are willing to accept our offers, we have no right to force them to do so.
Apply the same test to the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment: freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. These are all fundamental human rights. We each can exercise free choice of religion without denying that right to others. Note, however, we have no right to join a religious organization that doesn’t want to accept us. We each can associate with any individuals or groups, but only so long as they are willing to associate with us. Exercising that right does not make it impossible for others to do the same. We each can say what we like without denying that same right to others. Note again, however, we have no right to force people to listen, or to provide us with a forum in which to speak. We each are free to try to assemble the necessary resources, by voluntary agreements with others, to publish a newspaper or a magazine (or a blog on the Web). But we have no right to force people to provide those necessary resources or to purchase or read our publications.
The progressive and the Jeffersonian views of rights are not only different, they are incompatible. Any time a right claimed by anyone imposes a duty on another to undertake positive action, the alleged right cannot possibly be exercised by both parties simultaneously without logical contradiction.
The progressive view of rights is often called the positivist view because such rights necessarily impose duties to undertake positive actions on others. It is part of a larger philosophy called legal positivism, which asserts that rights are whatever government says they are.
The Jeffersonian view of rights is often called the negative view because the only duty imposed on others by such rights is a duty to refrain from undertaking a particular action. It is a duty to refrain from interfering with others. Moreover, in this view, government itself is bound by the rights justly claimed by all individuals.
The next time you say, “I have a right,” ask: “Who has the duty?” If there is anyone who has a duty to do anything except refrain from interfering with you, ask: “On what grounds do I claim a right to subordinate that person’s will to mine?”
- Genuine rights are prior to government; they are part of your nature as an individual human.
- The desire to have something doesn’t automatically mean you have a right to it.
- If your alleged “right” to something cannot be achieved without forcing another person to provide it for you, then it wasn’t a “right” to begin with.
- You have a right to read a book but no right to compel someone else to give you one.
- For further information, see:
A 15-minute interview about the concept of rights with FEE president Lawrence Reed on Bob Harden Radio, June 23 2014: http://tinyurl.com/kf99dqm
“Freedom or Free-for-All?” by Lawrence W. Reed: http://tinyurl.com/ks94kt4
“Do We Really Want a Right to Health Care?” by Theodore Levy: http://tinyurl.com/md7uccz
“Of Rights: Natural and Arbitrary” by Clarence B. Carson:http://tinyurl.com/pmxzzwv
“Rights” by Henry Hazlitt: http://tinyurl.com/ojhxgcq