What is a right?
I ask this because the word “rights” is so pervasive in political discourse. It seems to be one of those words that describe something everyone knows when they see but nearly everyone has a hard time defining. Instead, many people can list rights; they can cite academic, legal and religious texts as rationale for humans having rights. Many Americans can paraphrase the Bill of Rights to some degree. But when asked to define their rights in general there isn't much variation in the response. They recite a list or they defend a right's existence abstractly or they describe what it is used for.
Let's see how this works with the word “car”:
Question: What is a car?
Answer (List): Buick, Volkswagen, Ford, GM
Answer (Abstract): People have cars because they have signed a contract with a dealer or individual who was selling a car. That contract provides legal access and authorization to use the car as the car owner sees fit.
Answer (Usage): A car is what I use to get to work.
Not very useful answers are they? So why does this kind of nonsense pass for intellectual treatment of the concept of rights? My guess is leverage and influence. Much of the academic work regarding rights starts with the presumption that rights exist and that people “have” them. Then they go about listing them or explaining why these things are so. Their goal is to cause readers to accept certain notions about what rights are to influence how readers behave in the real world regarding rights. To be clear, I find nothing wrong with either this tactic or the goal of influence. In fact, it is my hope that this article does both also; alters your perception of rights and influences your behavior toward them in your future political participation. There, you've been warned. My perspective is abundantly biased and I'm very happy to point that out.
Influencing the way individuals think about things is a more powerful means of influencing their political behavior than trying to oppress thinking one disagrees with. It is for this reason politicians use special phrases that are designed to carry boatloads of emotional burden to a particular audience but convey no useful information by their use. For example, “assault weapon” is a deliberately contrived emotional phrase that doesn't help anyone to understand a single thing about the weapon being described. “Hate crime” is another example that is enormously more repugnant because for it to be applied someone must presume to know what hate is and how to determine if another person was experiencing it at a particular moment in time. This manipulation works — very well — on a huge segment of our society. We have come to a point where much of the business of Congress is taken up dealing with these made-up, non-descriptive phrases. “Rights” is another one.
Do you have rights?
The short answer is, yes. The longer answer that I'll pose today stems from the Bill Clinton-esque qualifying statement: It depends on what your definition of “have” is.
I know some readers are now experiencing a bit of discomfort because I didn't answer my opening question yet. What is a right? It seems only natural to first know what a right is before you can decide if you have one. That really isn't necessary here. The truth is I can't define a right for you any better than the academics, lawyers and clergy can…and I don't think questing after the ultimate definition helps any of us. Whatever you prefer as your definition of a right is fine. You are not disqualified from reading the rest of this article no matter what definition you promote.
The way I see it, the word “right” is simply used to label something that exists in the real world. For example, waterfalls are naturally occurring phenomena that nearly everyone in the world has seen, touched, smelled or heard. If academics had spent countless hours writing about and thinking about the nature of waterfalls would that change what you call a waterfall when you see one? No; of course not. Similarly, all the writing about them to date does not change how you know a right when you see one.
I'm not going to delve into finer distinctions; you can read the classic texts for that. I don't address common rights separately from legal rights or natural rights. In fact, I believe that adding these distinctions merely serves to make the manipulation of the reader easier by partitioning the notion of rights into categories that various segments of mankind can identify with more closely emotionally. I know this may seem cavalier but I intend to proceed without relying on this ancient divide-and-conquer approach to using rights as levers for manipulation of behavior. In the context of my opinion none of these emotional categories of rights are relevant.
What are the problems with traditional works on rights?
Through the ages many great minds have churned out views on rights. I haven't read them all, of course, but those I have read suffer some common flaws.
1. They establish the concept of rights as entitlements. Some writers have focused on property rights, others on the right to life and many on the rights of free expression and self-determination. As I see it they start with the presumption that we (humans) have rights and then proceed to explain how we got them or why we have them.
2. They reason from a snapshot without consideration to the inexorable passing of time and the eternal ebb and flow in the struggle for the defense of individual liberty.
3. They treat the abstract concept of rights as though they were physical characteristics. They proceed to expound as though their goal is to define the word so precisely that everyone can agree on them.
These flaws cause the entire nature of the defense of liberty to be shaped by pursuit of a red herring — the unalienable right.
My perspective on rights is formed through observation of how they exist “in the wild” and avoids the common problems I've described. I'll get to that in detail a bit later. First, consider the following elaboration on why these three flaws so commonly have negative consequences and how they tend to damage the defense of rights they claim as their goal.
How does treating rights as entitlements affect consequences?
Richard M. Weaver wrote eloquently about this in Ideas Have Consequences. I took his point to be that the way one perceives the world, the ideas one accepts and advocates, shape the behavior they exhibit. Ideas affect behavior, behavior has consequences.
When something is perceived as an entitlement it is incumbent on everyone else to provide it and for the government to force them to do so. Treating rights as entitlements means that the rest of society is obligated to provide, protect and preserve them. It also implies that the individual only has that right because the rest of society has granted it or been forced to grant it. In other words, viewing rights as entitlements means they are nothing more than a mass delusion, like the “emperor's new clothes.” It means that my rights are something the rest of you have to give me. This immediately smacks of force and manipulation to me. I refuse to impose that force on any of you. I hope we can find another way to work together to defend and preserve these things called rights, but I'm not up for the entitlement route. I don't buy it. I contend that one can exercise rights regardless of what any of the rest of us think about it and without expecting it to be a “gift” from society.
As with any government enforced entitlement program, the rationale behind their existence is the political value found in promoting the good intentions of supporters. When one ignores consequences, and instead, substitutes good intentions as rationale for their behavior, they have entered the world of politics. In this world, intentions and popular misconceptions drive the behavior of a significant segment of the population such that political victory is not much dependent on real-world consequences but more so on perceptions, whether they are true or not. The simplest description of politics is the art of getting people to believe intentions and consequences are the same thing.
There is very good reason the phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” has been so common for so long in so many cultures. Basing action on good intentions without regard to the direction it leads is a really, really bad idea that is pretty obvious to anyone who bothers to look at the consequences those actions have delivered in the past.
How does snapshot reasoning affect consequences?
Snapshot reasoning says that once the mass delusion has created a new right that right exists for all eternity. This tactic of has two major flaws. First, it assumes rights exist without a care to how and why. This blatant Fallacy of Presumption is a dead giveaway that snapshot reasoning is not compelling.
Second, it asserts that the right will continue to exist forever. It has always seemed to me that death was a really good clue that there is no such thing as a right to life….but that's a topic for a different day.
For example, there was a time when those we call Native Americans were exercising their right to live on land now called the USA. For these peoples there is no doubt that snapshot reasoning is false. Their right ended when the USA began exercising its right to occupy this land. Will that right last forever? I wouldn't bet on it and probably wouldn't live long enough to collect if it did.
Even though snapshot reasoning is logically false it is still a very common tactic. Why? My guess is leverage and influence. This tactic instills a kernel of faith. Faith is a powerful motivator because challenges to it evoke a tremendous emotional response…fear. The perception of acting to oppose threats to faith alleviates fear and drives votes. Snapshot reasoning is a very powerful, fear-based political tool. Even today it is being used daily to promote the Obama administration's healthcare reform package. They describe how the program will START, and ignore any consideration of how it will grow and change under the real economic conditions and the political manipulations of future politicians. Supporters believe the snapshot and bask in their good intentions while the opposition believes in the historically proven consequences and have good reason to fear those likely outcomes.
Finally, shapshot reasoning serves for some individuals as rationale for the belief that they can reset the clock and exercise their “rights” from a conveniently chosen snapshot. This misguided reasoning and the consequences of the behavior it enables are responsible for great damage to the defenses of liberty.
The very absurdity of this premise casts everyone remotely aligned with these people as being “crazy” or “unbalanced”. In any case, their behavior is self-marginalizing.
For instance, Queen Elizabeth cannot pretend to live in pre-magna carta England and assert her divine rights of kings on today's population. The bulk of common reference works on rights presumes the opposite; they promote that individuals can exercise their rights outside or regardless of today's realities. Reasoning from this false premise it is easy for average citizen/worker libertarians to develop an irrational sense of injustice against the State for oppressing their autonomy. Actually it is the nature of time itself that is at fault. One cannot go backwards in time to pretend to live in a stateless world.
I am making no defense of the State, merely pointing out the misplaced energy consumed by an emotional attack on it based on this false premise. The unrelenting force of fear begins with this misplaced assessment of injustice. It is this kernel of fear from which springs all manner of rationalization, ego-stroking, herding behavior; dogmatic mooing in unison about the virtues of individual liberty. Behaving as if the past is irrelevant is irrational. No one exists outside the context of time. It is illogical to base one's political behavior on the assertion that rights can be exercised from a false-timeless snapshot of the individual's choosing.
Unfortunately, many people who base their behavior on this justification do damage to the cause they purport to support. Murray Rothbard called them “emotivists.” I call them “Poison Fans.”
How does treating rights as physical attributes affect consequences?
This tactic has similar consequences as already described. It uses the “emperor's new clothes” approach to mass delusion where everyone agrees that they have rights. How can I be so sure that this is a delusion and that rights are NOT physical attributes like an invisible trunk or tail? That's the easy part. I don't buy the illusion and yet rights still exist…so I conclude that this physical attribute tactic is a ruse, a trick, another way to manipulate people into mistaking intentions for consequences by instilling a ever-present fear that one day someone will say “the emperor is naked”.
One more time, what is a right? Do you have them?
Many libertarians will argue that all rights can be attributed to property rights. Religious people will say rights are granted by God. Humanists will say rights are a human phenomenon. Rights are described as unalienable or natural or common or legal or divine. All of that is a waste of time.
Since I don't think it matters how rights are described or who agrees about their nature, what I find most important about rights is how they exist in the real world and what their role is in shaping human behavior; things that can be determined by observation only, never through debate.
Instead of trying to define a right or tell you if you have them or not, I'll start by describing how to recognize rights in the real world.
Let's start with something just a bit more tangible than rights. Think of a right as having qualities similar to a soap bubble.
1. Do I believe in soap bubbles? Of course.
2. Do I have bubbles? Well, no. I have a little jar of potential bubbles but I have to exercise my will by performing actions that create bubbles.
3. OK, after I create bubbles do I have bubbles? Again, that depends on the observer's notion of what “have” means. I can see the bubbles, I can touch them, I can manipulate them, taste them and even smell them…but do I HAVE them? I think not.
4. So, I've performed actions to create bubbles, I can see them, they exist in the physical world. Others can see them and perceive them in the very same way I can. Do they exist in perpetuity once everyone acknowledges they exist and have real-world manifestations? No. Bubbles only exist while they are exerting their bubbleness against the forces that would cause them to cease to exist.
5. When others see my jar of potential bubbles are they obliged to let me create my bubbles anywhere and anytime I choose? No, of course not. In the real world there will always be people who do not believe I have the right to make bubbles at all, ever, no matter how much potential bubble juice I carry around.
Now, bringing the focus out of bubble land and back to the perspective of rights, here is my take on what a right is:
1. For a right to exist it must be exercised. There are no potential rights or theoretical rights; there are only exercised rights and stories about them.
2. There are no common, natural or divine rights apart from those that are exercised per #1 above.
3. Exercising rights results in consequences. Calling the action a right does not provide a shield against potential negative consequences. Therefore, the scope of actions eligible to be rights is self limiting in that it is dangerous to exercise a “right” that others find objectionable here today even if it was perfectly acceptable elsewhere or at previous times.
4. A Right must meet the following criteria to be recognized through the ages:
a. The consequences of exercising it must be first survivable and then advantageous to the individual and finally advantageous to the rest of the affected society. Beyond all this human-fabricated intellectual nonsense, our purpose as a species is to ensure our DNA survives in spite of all our individual, cultural and intellectual mistakes.
b. It must be “secured.” There must be a means of preventing those who oppose exercising the right or who would inflict dire consequences from doing so.
How can Individuals secure rights without resorting to force or mass delusion?
The next logical topic to explore is how we go about preventing the opposition from popping our bubbles. This is a long topic that I'm not going to cover in detail here. The main points that comprise my take on securing rights are:
Doing exactly that… finding ways to secure our rights is the driving force that shapes our civilization. I oppose the status quo. By which I mean using politics to control the government force to eliminate opposition. This force-oriented thinking causes both sides to advocate policies that have disastrous consequences; some of which we are beginning to suffer today. The endless pursuit of the “middle” as the defining characteristic of both major political parties is the result of this quest to control the force of government. That is why I believe it is important to base my attitudes and behavior towards individual rights on what they actually are, not on perceptions of them created for political manipulation.
The key to securing rights is unity but not the kind of unity political parties foster through the tug of war for the middle. Securing rights requires unity FOR something, not unity AGAINST something. That something worth unifying FOR is liberty. The securing of rights rests on the defense of liberty. I deliberately avoided mentioning liberty earlier in order to avoid blurring the distinction between rights and liberty. Liberty is the ability to exercise a right or to defend others who are exercising that right or to oppose the exercising of that right by others. To defend liberty is to defend the opponents of liberty and it can't be any other way. In this we are all together. It is for that reason that politicians seldom speak solidly about liberty but pepper their blather with the word “rights.”
The common, flawed attitudes towards rights that I've described tend to damage the defenses of liberty in two ways:
- By diverting human energy and capital from the defense of liberty and wasting it on the debate over “rights;”
- By pitting folks with similar love of liberty against each other in futile debates over rights, what they are, where they came from, how they should be exercised, how they should be protected… and so on.
This damage allows the forces of oppression and those who intend to wield government force to eliminate their opposition to advance in the confusion. The progressives progress while their intended victims bicker over minutia. They didn't bring this country to the brink of collapse into socialism over night. They didn't waste energy trying to promote a third party or demonstrating in the streets. They spent a few years and a few million lives taking over the Democratic Party and controlling it for the past 70 years. They spent the last 40 years taking over the GOP and now progressives control both parties. Bickering over the emperor's new clothes will not undo that rot and set this country on a course for peace and prosperity. It takes effort to go into those parties and physically take control back from them, one position at a time.
I believe liberty demands tolerance and the defense of liberty demands working with people with whom you disagree.
-Jahfre Fire EaterTweet
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