Let's Think Clearly about "Rights"

When you demand "Fill-In-Pet-Cause Rights," are you actually asking for rights, or are you asking for special, privileged treatment?

"Your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose."

Everyone is demanding their “rights.” If the “rights” they demand take away my rights, are they rights?

Being on the libertarian end of the political spectrum, I’m all for human rights—do your thing; just don’t make me do your thing or get in the way of me doing my thing.

This raises the question: “What are ‘rights’?” This is a pretty deep philosophical issue that goes back millennia.

Natural Rights Are Not a New Concept

Philosophical questions deserve more than just a glance, but we first need to stake out some concepts here. There are basic human rights. These rights are called “natural rights” or “natural law” and have been deduced by reason and logic. The idea is that when you are born you have the right to your own life as an individual. If you are alive, you have the right to preserve and further your life (otherwise, what would be the point of life?). These rights aren’t given to you by someone, they are inherent in our nature—they just are.

The ideas and ideals of natural rights and natural law were embodied in the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

As you can guess, natural rights imply a lot of things, and philosophers have pondered and argued about this for the last 2,500 years. Start with the Greeks and Romans and work your way up through the centuries to Aquinas, the Salamancans, Hobbes, Locke, and others.

English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) defined natural rights this way:

Life: everyone is entitled to live.

Liberty: everyone is entitled to do anything they want to so long as it doesn’t conflict with the first right.

Estate: everyone is entitled to own all they create or gain through gift or trade so long as it doesn’t conflict with the first two rights.

America was founded upon these philosophical concepts. The ideas and ideals of natural rights and natural law were embodied in the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, and other Founders.

As the Declaration of Independence said:

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.

They took this directly from Locke (“happiness” was a broader word which included “property” as a source of one’s well-being).

They embedded these ideas into the Constitution. Why? Because they learned from history and experience that government was the greatest threat to our rights, so they spelled out the limitations of what government can and can’t do to us. They adopted the Bill of Rights to the Constitution which added further restrictions on government to protect our (natural) rights.

Privileges Are Not Rights

There have been a lot of protests lately demanding rights for a number of causes. There are demands for civil rights, women’s rights, labor rights, tenant rights, voting rights, disability rights, abortion rights, LGBT rights, immigrant rights, gun rights, welfare rights, minimum income rights, free college education rights, and … well, you get the idea.

I’m talking about economic and political “rights” demanded by progressives, such as tenant rights and living wage rights.

Many of these “rights” (that is, the specific demands being made) aren’t rights as much as they are political movements to abridge someone else’s rights or to get some advantage from government and taxpayers.

Before you jump out of your chair and mention the civil rights movement, let me explain that black Americans were seeking their natural rights (equality under the law) by fighting segregation laws. “Jim Crow” and “separate but equal” were government laws restricting the rights of black Americans. Other civil rights sought were also natural rights and demands that were just, such as voting rights, women’s suffrage, miscegenation laws, and sodomy laws, to name a few. I’m not talking about those.

I’m talking about economic and political “rights” demanded by progressives, such as tenant rights and living wage rights.

Where Progressive Lose the Thread

A favorite social justice cause is “Tenant Rights.” These “rights” are demanded by people who choose to live in some of the most expensive places on the planet and want government to bend the rules of the marketplace to favor them. They want to force apartment owners to reduce rents to artificially low prices. They want to limit owners’ rights to get rid of tenants who can’t pay or abuse the property. They want to enable tenants to sue owners as a form of harassment to incrementally deprive owners of control over their property.

The irony of tenants’ “rights” is that it will reduce the availability of rental units to the poor and raise rents, thus compounding the problem. In these high-rent areas, housing is limited and desirable. If a property owner can pick and choose tenants, why choose a poor tenant over a more financially able tenant? It’s the poor who lose.

These progressive aims are a good example of the axiom that intentions are not to be confused with results.

Another social justice cause is a “right” to a “living wage”—another false right. The problem for minimum wage enthusiasts is that it doesn’t work. When you peel back the layer of propaganda, it is just another form of government-enforced redistribution of wealth.

Business owners don’t set wages, we consumers do by what we are willing to pay for the goods or services we buy. If the law forces business owners to pay workers more than the marginal benefit of their labor to the employer, then their businesses will be less competitive, less profitable, and will be forced to reduce costs (such as shedding employees) to stay in business. It is another example of the unintended negative consequences of economic policies that don’t match up with reality.

These progressive aims are a good example of the axiom that intentions are not to be confused with results. These “rights” violate the basic tenets of natural law because they violate my rights and your rights as individuals to make basic choices about our own lives, liberty, and property.

When you get down to it, one must recognize that government laws are enforced at the point of a gun.

When I discuss these kinds of issues with progressives, I challenge them with the question of why they favor violence and coercion as a means of implementing social policies. When you get down to it, one must recognize that government laws are enforced at the point of a gun. Why would one favor top-down coercive policies controlled by a fallible few at the top rather than the voluntary bottom-up choices made by millions of individuals? A very relevant point when one considers the history of top-down regimes.

Natural rights and natural law were and still are one of the prime drivers of the dramatic rise of wealth and well-being of people lucky enough to live in (mostly) Western societies. Yet progressives dismiss natural rights because they have no faith in your ability to make rational choices about your own life. They would sacrifice your time-honored rights to attain their ultimate goal of political power.

Reprinted from An Independent Mind.

Further Reading

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