July 08, 2019
One advantage of hiking with friends is the inevitability of bringing up interesting topics of conversation. You can certainly come up with interesting topics on your own. But the conversation tends to be dull if you are the only one talking.
This America day, I ventured out on a hike with my good friend Nick from the The Tohidian. He was passionately telling me how sixty percent of Americans support a particular position on a controversial policy. And yet, there are states in the union that are actively trying to implement a contradictory policy. “It should be a human right”, he told me.
Long time readers should be familiar with my skepticism on majority rule arguments (if not you can read about it here). But this was not what spurred this blog. Instead, it was the part about the “human right” that was the true inspiration. My question to him was this: what makes something a “human right”?
Now, you’re probably wondering what is this controversial policy I so elegantly obfuscated. It turns out that it doesn’t really matter because the policy is irrelevant to this discussion. What I am interested in is what makes something a “right” in the first place.
As it turns out, rights come in two flavours:
Legal rights can be complicated and full of lawyer talk. You’ve probably all seen the two thousand page credit card agreement you get in the mail every time JPMorgan decides to update a sentence. Other legal rights are very familiar to us:
Legal rights are created and enforced by the government to regulate criminal activity and civil matters. They also tend to be “positive rights” — rights that say what you can do or what someone ought to do for you.
Natural rights, on the other hand, are not created by anyone. They are universal and granted to all people at birth.
The astute reader may question the previous statement and wonder how rights can be granted if no one is granting them; or what makes them universal. That argument is conveniently outside the scope of this post.
What are some examples of natural rights?
Natural rights tend to be “negative rights” — right that impose on others to not do something. Intuitively, most people agree with these rights even without justifying their source.
One way to paraphrase natural rights is by using the following “loose axiom”:
Live life the way you want to live as long as you don’t infringe on other people’s right to live life the way they want to live.
This is also loosely known as the non-aggression principal.
Some criticize this principal as selfish. “It’s all about ME”; “I want to live the way I want to live”. This is not true. The only way for this principle to hold; the only way to protect your rights, is by respecting everyone else’s rights.
What does any of this have to do with Nick and his controversial policy stance? Let’s work it out.
Here’s phrases I hear uttered from time to time:
Health care is a human right.
Education is a human right.
Housing is a human right
Are these really human rights?
Human rights sure sound like natural rights. Are these natural rights? Let’s take “education is a human right” and use our “loose axiom”.
If I am a teacher and you are in need of schooling, I am obligated to provide you with education. This is your right after all.
What if I refuse? Can you fine me? And what if I keep refusing? Can you jail me? Jail may not be an appropriate life style choice for me. You would be infringing on my right to live life the way I want to live.
In other words, positive rights can only be achieved at the expense of someone else.
Back to “education is a human (natural) right”. Education cannot be a natural right because it violates the axiom of natural rights. If education is a right, it must be a legal right — a right afforded to you by the government.
Your next question is probably, “Is that so bad?”
I was careful to use the term “loose axiom” when referring to the non-aggression principal. It is not because I have doubts in its value. On the contrary. I think it’s an invaluable tool to start thinking about rights, policy, and morality. But there can be times when you need to bend the rules a bit for a greater purpose.
Take the court system for example. If you are accused of committing a crime, you probably want a fair and impartial court to hear your case. A private court system that offers a deluxe package to its wealthiest customers may guarantee a lawyer and 2 non guilty verdicts per year. But that’s not impartial. Instead We end up outsourcing the process of justice to the government. Of course, the government needs to collect tax revenue to pay all the police and judges it hires. Taxes must come from you and I. And indeed, if you refuse to pay the tax you’ll end up in jail.
However, there are very few cases where the government’s participation is absolutely necessary. A voluntary transaction between two individuals is almost always the better solution; and with the right incentives would lead to a healthier, wealthier and happier society.
What I ask of you is this: whenever a question of policy comes up, start with the non-aggression principal first. Can you figure out a way to solve the problem through voluntarily transactions? You’ll be amazed by what can be done. And yes, it does include education, healthcare and housing.
Written by Leon Tager who lives and works in Seattle writing about a better life. You should follow him on Twitter