Friday, March 27, 2009

Rights and Privileges

Do humans have rights governments recognize (or don't), or do people only have privileges government grants (or doesn't)? I suspect that your answer to this question will determine your politics to a certain degree.

If you believe the latter, my guess is that you are a pragmatist whose thinks the government has to "do something" to offset the "excesses" of the free market economy -- and that we especially have to "do something" now more than ever. THis idea that government only grants privileges is a deeply conservative idea -- and by deeply conservative, I mean that it's an idea which precedes the Enlightenment. It places the government in charge of the people, who are incapable of doing anything for themselves without the wisdom of government there to help them.

If you believe in rights, my guess is that you are a democrat -- an idealist of some sort. What is then at issue among democrats is the limits of rights. What are rights, properly speaking? You have those who believe in negative rights and those who believe in positive rights. Negative rights are those which prevent others from doing something to you. Such rights include the rights to life, liberty, expression, and property -- and the proper role of government is to protect those rights from others, including government(s). Positive rights are those which grant you something -- they are, in fact, privileges. Such rights include the rights to health care, a certain income, education, and work -- and the proper role of government is to make sure everyone gets these rights. The difference between the two is that nobody has to give up anything (except a life of crime) for everyone to have their negative rights respected, but somebody has to give up something (or be enslaved) to ensure everyone gets their positive rights. If we have a right to health care, somebody has to do something to provide you with that service. If we have a right to life, all somebody has to do is leave you alone and not kill you. A right to health care means that you have a right to the labor of a doctor -- that the doctor has to serve you, no matter what. There is a term for those who have to serve another, and do not have a choice but to serve. Thus, a government that recognizes positive rights will eventually see the need to nationalize any and all businesses which provide those services, meaning a slave economy is reintroduced, even if it is a kind of wage-slave economy. The difference is that those with the most abilities are enslaved to those with the fewest. Of course, the right to an education has resulted in a massive reduction in those who have any sort of real abilities at all, so the system does tend to undermine itself.

With the idea of positive rights, privilege and many pre-market conditions are reintroduced. The difference is that privilege and the slave economy are turned on their heads under democratic governments. But privilege is privilege and slavery is slavery, even if the common people are the privileged masters this time around. Slavery vanished in most of the world because it was a far less efficient way of getting work done than were free market conditions. It seems we will have to learn that lesson again (and again).


Anonymous said...

I might disagree with your first premise. As I believe, humans have certain inalienable rights that the government does or does not recognize, however they are still basic rights that all humanity has whether a government (or anyone else for that matter) recognizes it or not. Some of these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

With that in mind, we also have privileges, which the government grants us, and can resend (such as a driver's license). Many of these such privileges come with citizenship. Some come simply for legally residing in this country even if not a full citizen. Others still are awarded at certain ages (like the right to vote granted at the age 18, or the right to drink at the age 21).

Now on to my 'political affiliation'. I am not a democrat, if we are talking about the current, modern two party platforms upon which the president has been voted from in the near past. Nor would I claim to be a republican. I consider myself to be somewhere between a conservative, and a classical liberal. I haven't yet fleshed everything out though.

John said...

Every positive right entails an obligation from someone else. I follow you that far. But the slavery analogy is a bit extreme, IMO. True slaves have no choice and no room for finesse. A doctor dealing with a patient who has a right to health care, for example, has plenty of both. If she doesn't want to treat the patient, she can resign, or try to pass her off to someone else, or move to a different country and practice medicine there, etc. Not ideal, maybe, but not quite slavery.

What's wrong with a certain amount of give and take between positive rights and civic responsibilities in the context of community membership?

Anonymous, I'm not sure that rights can exist independently of whether anyone recognizes them or not, since they're basically performative social constructions. If you printed a million dollars in your own currency tomorrow but no one would accept it as legal tender, would you really have a million dollars?

Troy Camplin said...

I was arguing against those who do not believe there are rights, only privileges granted by government. THis does not negate that a rights-recognizing government shouldn't also grant certain privileges, as the one you mentioned.

Now on to terminology. Please note I did not capitalize the term "democrat."

A democrat is someone who supports democratic government.

A Democrat is a member of the Democratic Party, and more or less believes what they more or less believe.

Along those lines, a republican is someone who supports republican forms of government.

A Republican is a member of the Republican Party, and more or less believes what they more or less believe.

I myself am a classical liberal constitutional democratic republican.

Troy Camplin said...


The fact that a slave could escape his slavery and go to the North didn't mean there wasn't in fact slavery in the South. I am of course looking at the issue from an extreme position -- one of complete nationalization. This is necessary if one is to fully practice positive rights. In a completely nationalized economy, if you work, you are enslaved -- and if you don't work, presumably you starve (or get thrown in the gulag).

In a less-than-full situation, this is what you have:

Suppose I want to become a doctor, but I think that I should have the right to treat who I want, when I want, charging what I want, for whatever diseases I want. If I can't do that, I won't become a doctor. If you say that I can't do those things, you are in fact restricting my choices -- restricting my freedom. As such, you are restricting my liberty -- and we have a right to liberty. Thus, a right to health care necessarily violates the right to liberty. One may argue that it's not an important violation of liberty -- but who is to say what's important or not important to another individual?

When one is a member of a community, that membership is voluntary. If some small, local community requires very restrictive rules for membership, that's up to them. But no federal/national government, state/province, or even county is a community by any stretch of the imagination. In a community it is possible to know everyone. Not so on a larger scale. So the community argument doesn't work for me, because nothing above about 150 people is a community. It's something bigger, and more anonymous. Also, the larger the entity, the harder it is to emigrate away from rule with which one does not agree. The larger the entity micromanaging your life, the more and more your relationship to that entity is one of de facto slavery.

So called positive rights are in fact not rights at all precisely because they force someone to serve someone else, whether they want to do so or not. There are lots of practical reasons why we want to avoid this (like the fact that we end up with fewer doctors, etc. providing worse service), but the fact that to receive the benefits of my positive rights, I require the service of another, whether they want to provide that service or not, both makes positive rights not rights at all, and, more unethical.

Anonymous said...

I'm with de Jasay in preferring to think about liberties rather than rights: people should be at liberty to do whatever they like unless there is an over-riding reason to stop them. A right to free speech, for example, suggests that free speech is an exception to the rule of general impermissibility. Is there a some special right to dance a jig while drinking iced tea? Of course not, but people should be at liberty to do so if they so choose.

Some nice discussion of the point here.

Troy Camplin said...

Yes, but this can presuppose a right to liberty. I think we should have liberty, but can we base that on something other than pragmatics? Is liberty a right recognized, or a privilege granted? Even if there are, objectively, no such things as rights (I don't know how this could be proven or disproven), I think the world is a better place if we act as though there were. So, perhaps the liberty to say what you want rather than the right to free speech -- on that I can agree. But that liberty, I think, is based on having the right to have liberty (and life).

Anonymous said...

We do vote for 'wise' leaders to grant privileges through regulations or deregulation. This is the founding idea of a republic. These regulations are fluid rules that change with the changes in leadership. Rights are universal to mankind and have less fluid changes, but saddly fluid interpretations.


Troy Camplin said...

From what I know about history, the recognition of rights have been far more fluid than have been the introduction of rules and regulations. Those seem to become almost permanent. The rare revolution sweeps things away -- but even revolutions more often than not sweep in even more repressive regimes. Rights are supposed to be more or less rigid -- they are the centers around which complex systems are built. More often than not, laws and regulations end up becoming anti-rules, undermining the rules that result in greater complexity in society, and subsequently undermine that society's freedom and wealth.

Todd Camplin said...

Rights, like rules, are invented ideas set up to arbitrarily control, limit, or protect populations. These ideas are promoted by the invented nation-state maintains a power structure that insures the further existence of the nation-state, and in turn the nation-state is supported by 'too big to fail' corporations in so far as the state protects them from risks, helps to make the big get bigger, and allows free flow of profits for the bigger corporations. Although the communist and the democracies won the physical war, Mussolini's corporate state is winning the war of ideas.
Rights is a dead idea and rules are only for those not powerful enough to skirt them.

Troy Camplin said...

Sounds like you've been spending too much time listening to the Marxists. The recognition of rights set up the U.S., which was not a nation-state in its foundations -- the rejection of negative rights and teh promotion of positive rights (reintroduction of privilege) is what gave rise to the nation-state. Everyone follows rules, or action is impossible. Laws and rules are two different things.

Todd Camplin said...

So negative rights create a nation-state and positive rights create a republic like the early US. Ignoring the fact that the privileged few got to vote and own land, sure was a great system (insert irony here). The fact that the US gave rights to some and refuses to others shows that the republic was founded with both types of rights you illustrated. Although, the true beauty of the founding is the mechanism that the rights system had put into place was how negative rights were continually expanded to the citizens over time.
Just because an idea or system is invented, doesn't mean it has less value than something from human nature. If you can draw that line from our basic instincts.

Troy Camplin said...

No, you got it backwards. This country (not necessarily all republics) was founded on negative rights. It was not a perfect foundation, but it was a better foundation than any other country that has ever existed. And anyone who could afford it could own property, and most people did -- so that privileged few were in fact many. Yes, women weren't included, nor were slaves, but once slavery was abolished and women's rights recognized (through the idea that slavery and restricting women's rights violated negative rights), the country was on the right path, having been placed there by our ideas on negative rights. It is Rousseau and Marx and others such as them who came up with the ideas of positive rights and sought to essentially re-enslave the populace with the nation-state. That is the direction this country has been going for a century now. Yes, negative rights -- rights properly understood -- were also extended to other groups, as well it should have been, but positive rights have also been extended, reducing true rights for everyone. YOu make the mistake of thinking that all privileges are positive rights, and that's not the case. There are privileges that aren't positive rights. However, positive rights are a kind of privilege -- a new kind that would not have been recognized as either rights or privileges by the founding fathers. Positive rights are a new kind of privilege designed to enslave the best to the majority through democratic means. It is a form of tyranny. And a tyranny of the majority is not better just because a majority is involved. And that is what positive rights do: the reintroduce tyranny through democratic means. Negative rights abolish tyranny. Government-enforced privilege, whether of the traditional or the more recent kind, in positive rights, is necessarily tyrannical.