I know my rights! (So you think..)


With all of the angry voices these days demanding their ‘rights’, I thought it might be useful to dissect some of the very loose concepts floating around so we can get a better look at the issue. The concept of ‘rights’ is a human construct; the animal world seems to have no use for them. One can say there are ‘inalienable’ rights decreed by God, but that is also a construct – or our interpretation of God’s intentions. It seems to me that ‘rights’ can be initially divided into two distinct categories.

You Can’t Do That!

DeclarationExclusionary (or negative) rights are rights which forbid an action. A ‘right to life’ excludes someone from killing me; a right to liberty excludes someone from enslaving or imprisoning me, and the right to ‘pursue happiness’ (originally the right to property) excludes someone from expropriating the fruits of my labor. Of course, to enforce those rights, a society has to be able to selectively abrogate them for individuals who violate the rights of others - hopefully in a judicious manner. Exclusionary rights are easy to recognize and enforce, because they essentially require an individual (or society) to refrain from doing something. Of course, real-world situations are far more complicated; you don’t have a right to do something that indirectly diminishes another’s rights (think pollution), and these can be nuanced considerations, but in general, these rights are self-regulating.

But wait – there’s more!

AssertiveAssertive (or ‘positive’ or affirmative) rights are those which demand action from another, either individually or from society as a whole. ‘Free health care’, free housing’, ‘free food’, etc are examples of assertive rights, and to fulfill them, they require that someone’s (or everyone’s) exclusionary rights be impaired or extinguished. Since nothing is ‘free’, to assert a right to be provided some material thing is to demand that someone else’s time or property be expropriated for your benefit. If these goods or services are voluntarily contributed it is called ‘charity’, but if they are demanded as a ‘right’ and forced from someone, the old words for it were ‘robbery’ or ‘slavery’. That may sound a little harsh, but it is nonetheless true.

Oh, the GUILT!

Oh the guiltHowever, citizens might decide it is a better idea to provide for some of these demands than feel guilty about their own comfort or to risk unrest. Not too long ago, these needs were met by private charities, largely religion-based. This required the people who were upset by the sight of their less well-off brethren to actually bear the cost of assuaging their discomfort. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, these people decided that it would be much better if everyone chipped in and helped, even if the others did not want to or did not agree the project was a good idea to begin with. Those doubters of such civic goodness were called ‘hard-hearted’ and cast from polite society. But they had a point…

The horizon is limitless!

Black hole of needThe good thing about exclusionary rights is that they are limited in scope and quality – they are relatively few and literally require nothing to accomplish, aside from some policing functions. Assertive rights, on the other hand, are endless; since human needs (or wants) seem to have no bounds, there can be a case made for an endless parade of ‘rights’ which must be met, or at least loudly demanded. Also, the quality of exclusionary rights is generally very limited, in that there is usually only a small gray area between do and don’t. Assertive rights, however, have an almost endless spectrum. For example, if there is a right to housing, does that mean a cardboard box in a warehouse or a suite in a 5-star hotel? Does a right to food mean a bag of rice and beans or chef-cooked dinners? If there is a right to ‘health care’, even the most hard-hearted would agree providing needy children with vaccinations is a good thing, but is it also a good thing to provide free liver transplants to alcoholics? Any time an assertive right is granted, another fight invariably starts as to the scope of the new entitlement, and governance will make the problem much worse.

In a democracy, granting assertive rights seems to create its own positive-feedback loop, where each new ‘right’ brings out loud demands for another [he got his, so now I need mine…]. And, of course, ensuring all of these ‘rights’ are met needs more than passive enforcement; it needs an active bureaucracy to ensure everyone gets their goods and that the appropriate people pay for it. This, of course, means that any goods or services provided by these ‘rights’ becomes far more expensive than if they were provided on the open market, and the endless proliferation of bureaucrats inevitably drags the whole system down.

When carried to its natural conclusion (see any socialist country), society eventually collapses if it tries to mandate that everyone’s needs are met. But, I personally would not like to see scrawny urchins begging on street corners, and I think most people feel the same, so the question becomes, is there a way to humanely meet some needs without exploding the society? If one insists that every fallen sparrow be cared for, the answer is clearly no, but if one can accept some level of periodic immiseration, then we could look to how our ‘unenlightened’ ancestors dealt with the problem.

Back to the work houses?

WorkhouseThe first thing that must be done is to re-couple those who believe the problems (hunger, illness, etc) must be solved to the mechanism of the solution. Demanding those problem be solved by governments’ spending other peoples’ money does not allow any negative feedback to rein in excesses and only encourages the growth of the problem itself. People themselves, either as individuals or in groups (like the Friendly Societies of the 19th Century), can provide at least minimal alleviation of basic needs and also try to help those who truly want to help themselves. For example, if there were not government wage and hours mandates, very low-paying jobs in what might amount to modern work-houses could give some people a start at a real job, or at least sustenance. There are tons of food wasted every day which could be salvaged by those who needed it if regulation did not get in the way. Before medical care became a huge government program, doctors routinely provided low cost or free care to the poor, but this can no longer be done. No matter what is done, there will always be those who won’t do anything productive to help themselves, so some sparrows will fall, but if we try to do everything for everyone, we only make it worse.

Other solutions are worse...

HorsemenThe problem of a growing needy underclass was classically solved by a visit from the Four Horsemen whenever their population exceeded the carrying power of the society or environment. We in the modern age believe our knowledge and skills makes us immune from this, but we are sadly mistaken. Complex societies are inherently unstable, and ‘chaotic’ in the sense that it is almost impossible to predict a chain of events following a disturbance. If we do not seek simplification and allow less than perfect solutions to hard problems, we may soon be hearing hoof beats in the distance.