Natural rights versus entitlements

Conservatives like to talk about the distinction between “natural rights” and “entitlements”. I’d like to take a look at that distinction, to see whether it’s really all that it’s cracked up to be.

I will take as my case study an advertisement that I heard on the radio for Hillsdale College . The ad included a little mini-speech by one of their teachers, sounding very impressive and intellectual, who was pontificating about the philosophical difference between a “natural right” and an “entitlement”:

“America was founded on the idea that human beings are born with natural rights, such as the rights to life, liberty, and property. A person who holds this view of rights makes no demands on others except that they respect those rights. Today, however, many Americans talk about rights to a college education, state-of-the-art medical care, and even birth control pills. These are rights understood as entitlements, and a person who holds this view of rights, far from making no demands on other people, is making claims on other people’s money and resources. This understanding of rights not only sets citizens against each other, but it undermines the whole idea of natural rights.”

Let’s take this sentence by sentence.

America was founded on the idea that human beings are born with natural rights, such as the rights to life, liberty, and property.

HappinessLet’s start by correcting an inaccuracy there. It was John Locke who claimed that the list of natural rights included life, liberty and property; however, Thomas Jefferson substituted “pursuit of happiness” in place of “property” in the United States Declaration of Independence.  Maybe the speaker was thinking of the French Declaration of Rights, which included “property” as a listed right, and was written around the same time. But a number of other philosophers who were also writing around that time only included “life” and “liberty” in the list, with no mention of either “property” or “happiness” at all.

This might be because nobody was really clear on what a right to “the pursuit of happiness” might mean, and how it was different from “liberty”: which presumably is the right to make whatever choices you want to make, including those choices that involve pursuing happiness. Or it might be because some people thought that if you have the right to “liberty” then the right to pursue happiness and have property naturally followed from that, and therefore didn’t need any special mention.

Of course, at the same time that all of these people were scrambling to put in place this philosophical notion of “natural rights” (the late 1700’s), there were also several philosophers who argued that the entire notion of “natural rights” was an absurd and philosophically incoherent fiction. Jeremy Bentham, in fact, questioned how it could be that supposedly axiomatic, incontrovertible and universal rights could exist,  and still take more than 2000 years of human history for people to discover and “declare”.

All of this is not to even mention that fact that, at the time of writing of these documents, these rights were usually only applied to white men…. and so not all that “universal and natural”, after all.

Even if you believe that “natural rights” exist, the very fact that philosophers have argued about what items should be on the list, and who these rights apply to, highlights one very important fact: it’s possible to be wrong.

To put it another way: Just because you believe that the list of “natural rights” includes some list of things X, Y, Z doesn’t inherently mean that you’ve got the right list.  If you honestly believe that there is some objective list of objective natural rights out there, and over history different people have believed in different lists, then by the very nature of it people are sometimes wrong about what is on the list.

That means that you could be, as well.

I’m not going to argue here specifically that “property” or anything else is not a right that people should have. I just want to point out that whatever list of rights you are using, it is socially constructed and determined by people in a society. Even if you haughtily state that they “come from a creator”… it’s still a fallible human being who is sitting there and trying to decide which rights go on the list, and what they mean, and how they should be applied.

Let’s move on to the next sentence.

A person who holds this view of rights makes no demands on others except that they respect those rights.

When people exist in a society of complex interactions and interdependencies, this statement just isn’t true.

Before getting into “complexity”, let’s look at the simplest example of cases where these rights can “make demands” on another person… even if it is just two people interacting.

If I want to kill you, and you don’t want to be killed, then we have a conflict between my liberty (the freedom to act as I want to) and your life (the freedom to continue to live), and presumably your right to your life overrides my right to free action.

If I want to take your milk cow, and you do not want me to take your milk cow, then we have a conflict between my liberty (the freedom to act as I want to) and your property (the freedom to keep your stuff), and presumably your right to keep your stuff overrides my right to free action.

How is this enforced?

Suppose that I do want to kill you, and I am determined. The government will presumably step in to try to prevent this violation of your rights (to life) from happening. But the only way to pay the government for the resources it needs to protect you (manpower, equipment) is through taxes or fees. I suppose people who can afford it might be able to pay for private protection, so they are voluntarily participating in an economic interaction to help preserve their right to their own life.

But then poor people would be out of luck.  The only way that a government can afford to protect the right to life or property of a poor person is to pay for the resources that offer up that protection (e.g. police) by using taxes on the rest of the population as a whole.

That, of course, is seen by some as a violation of the right to their property (e.g. ownership of the fruits of your labor),and it certainly puts a demand on those people who are paying taxes.

But once again we are pitting two “natural rights” against each other:  rich person’s right to property against poor person’s right to have his life protected from murderers.

AXIOM: If the constitution is to be meaningful at all, the government must have a way to enforce it.

Which means either we ignore the poor person’s right to have protection of his rights, or we infringe on the right of rich people to not help to pay for government services (like police) that help poor people.

In this case, we have decided as a culture that the poor person’s right to live wins over the rich person’s right to not pay any taxes.

I guess even “natural rights” are not immutable after all, at least in those circumstances where they come into conflict with one another.

 

The take-home message is this: the claim that there is some kind of “short list” of natural rights meeting the description that they “make no demands on others” is a fiction. Depending on the circumstances, all rights for one individual can constitute a demand on other individuals because individuals interact with one another, and sometimes do not voluntarily want to respect each others’ rights. That is what government is for: dealing with those situations.

Your right to be protected from marauding gangs makes a demand on my right to keep my income, because my taxes help to pay for everyone’s protection.

If we lived in a society that was more “libertarian”, in which we did not have a public police force, but only private security guards whom individuals could hire for their own protection, we would simply be giving up one “natural right” for another: by preserving the rich person’s “natural right” to property, we would be building a society where poor people had no (enforceable) “natural right” to be alive.  It’s one or the other: there is literally no fantasy universe where no trade-off exists.

Next sentence.

Today, however, many Americans talk about rights to a college education, state-of-the-art medical care, and even birth control pills.

This is an interesting list of items that are presented with absolutely no context what-so-ever.  When you place each of these items in their respective context in our culture, you see exactly the same types of conflicts and trade-offs that I was just talking about a moment ago. Each of these rights, far from being trivial, is an extension of the basic natural rights and an outcome of the web of complex interdependencies in our society.

In today’s culture, not having a college education severely impacts one’s ability to pursue both work (which in old-school language maps onto the right to acquire property) and happiness (which our Hillsdale speaker conveniently left out of his little speech).  Of course, just as you can buy private security to protect you from criminals, you can also purchase a college education.

But, because of how our society is set up today, that means that the poorest people have very different access to the pursuit of property and the pursuit of happiness than rich people.  It wasn’t true in the 1700’s that going to college was a factor in determining access to property and happiness, but today it undeniably is.  (Note: it’s obviously not the only factor, and it is neither necessary nor is it sufficient for success.  However, it is an influencing factor.)

So, we have a conflict between two “natural rights” once again, and our culture has to make a decision.

In the case of police, we as a culture have decided that a rich person’s right to keep all of his money is not as important as a poor person’s right to not be killed by criminals.

In the parallel case of education, we could also decide (as a culture and a country) that a rich person’s right to keep all of his money is not as important as a poor person’s right to have access to an education that will impact his right to pursue both property and happiness.

This same type of argument can actually be made for each of the hand-picked, out-of-context examples in the quotation above.

The reason conservatives like that hand-picked list is that they only have arisen relatively recently (compared to, say, the 1700’s) because of the way that our culture has evolved over time. They can say “The Founding Fathers would have thought that the idea of a right to birth control pills was ludicrous!”

Of course, I’m not so sure. They were pretty bright guys. Bring them into today’s world, and educate them about the complex system of dependencies and economic interactions that we have in today’s society, and I think it’s pretty hard to predict exactly what they would have said.

Let’s move on to the next sentence.

These are rights understood as entitlements, and a person who holds this view of rights, far from making no demands on other people, is making claims on other people’s money and resources.

So let me review my argument so far, from the previous sections.

1) Not everyone agrees on what the “natural rights” are, and it’s possible to be wrong.

2) When people interact with one another, even the “classic” view of the list of natural rights can easily come into conflict with each other in a situation where some “demand” is being made on someone no matter what is decided. When that happens, we as a society have to decide which outcome “wins”.

3) Most of the examples of “entitlements” that conservatives like to pick at can actually be traced back to conflicts between the “natural rights” of different interacting parties, and only seem “special” or “strange” because of the complex fabric of interactions and dependencies in our society.

With that as the set-up, I think it is clear that this most recent sentence is just flat-out wrong.  The categories of “natural rights” and “entitlements”, far from being clear-cut and distinct, bleed into one another when people interact in complex ways. Moreover, even in the simplest cases, when two parties interact it can create a situation where enforcing one person’s “natural rights” puts a demand on the resources of another person.

Such as enforcing a poor person’s right to not be killed.

So this is an artificial distinction that is being created.

On to the final sentence.

This understanding of rights not only sets citizens against each other, but it undermines the whole idea of natural rights.

To be honest, I don’t actually know what to make of this last assertion. In what way does it “undermine” the idea of natural rights?  Does it do so because the speaker imagines that natural rights are inherently “pure” and put no demands on other people’s property?  I think it’s pretty clear that this isn’t always true.  Rather: the idea that you can come up with an absolute list of “natural rights” that will never have to lead to conflict or compromise is ridiculous … or at least, it’s ridiculous in a world where people are interdependent and interact with one another.

The only environment where a person can live his life completely unrestrained is an environment where he doesn’t interact with other people. He grows his own food, he builds his own shelter, he doesn’t rely on police or an army to protect him from invaders.

But in the real world, where people interact with each other, all rights must result in compromise–and yes, even “making demands on other people”–if they are ever to be enforced.

 



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