Some of my academic work deals with international issues. As a result, I read a lot about the philosophy of human rights. It’s hard to read this literature without noticing the nearly complete absence of libertarian input. This post is my call for a libertarian take on human rights.

Libertarians are typically not very friendly to human rights. Many are skeptical of the practice of human rights, and particularly the institutions associated with it (think of the infamous UN Human Rights Council or its predecessor the UN Commission on Human Rights). But many are also skeptical on substantive or theoretical grounds. The practice and theory of human rights has become increasingly oriented toward so-called social and economic rights. Standard lists include human rights to fair pay, decent conditions of work, to social insurance, paid maternity leave, the right to adequate food, clothing, and housing, the right to basic health services, and so on. (These and more are found in seminal documents, such as here.)

The opposite is true as well of course. Human rights theorists and activists are not very friendly to libertarianism either. They think libertarians underestimate the importance of many human rights, including the welfare rights. They think libertarians underestimate the role played by international institutions in protecting people across the globe from oppression and abuse. And they want to continue the expansion of human rights to ramp up these protections.

This is not a good state of affairs. Not for libertarians and not for human rights. It’s bad for libertarians because the practice of human rights does seem to have been largely a force for good. And while the philosophical literature on human rights is currently exploding, there is virtually no attention to the kind of economic rights to which libertarians would be friendly. Few defend (or even mention) a human right to private and productive property. Few defend (or even mention) key economic liberties as human rights. A human right to fee trade? Forget about it.

As a result, libertarians are at risk of defending a vision of a just society that would violate standard lists of human rights. That is not a good place to be. The language of human rights is the world’s moral lingua franca. To say that something violates people’s human rights is widely seen as very strong condemnation.

This state of affairs is bad for human rights thinking as well. There is no necessary conflict between human rights and libertarianism. There are plenty of human rights that libertarians can support, even robustly defend. Libertarians are second to none in their defense of civil liberties, rights to personal integrity and security, and freedom. More importantly, there is a good argument to be made that libertarian insights ought to be taken more seriously by the human rights crowd. To give but one example: recognizing the importance of things we need as “consumers” (education, social insurance, health care) cannot come at the expense of recognizing the things we need as “producers” (economic liberties, private productive property, trade).

I believe that, over the last decade or so, libertarian thinkers have largely failed to show how their thinking can make a valuable contribution to human rights theory. This is our failing. We need to do better.

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  • Sean II

    “To say that something violates people’s human rights is widely seen as very strong condemnation.”

    Okay, but that doesn’t meant what it seems to mean. The people who are doing the “widely condemning” here don’t understand the term “human rights” in the same way as it’s used by academics and international quangocrats.

    When an ordinary person watching TV hears that Mauritania has been cited for human rights violations, he takes this to mean simply that Mauritania is a shitty place in which to be a human. But he most certainly does not think “Uh-oh. This can only mean the Mauritanians have been denied their right of strike action, or perhaps that their leaders have failed to submit regular reports to the Secretary General in accordance with the provisions of Article 16.”

    It gets worse. Later on, when the same ordinary person hears the phrase “human rights violations” applied to Apple Inc., he quickly figures out that this cannot mean the same thing it meant when used against Mauritania.

    And the result is: even people who don’t know what a hooray word is, kinda sorta sense that “human rights” is one. The more they learn about it, the more they’ll discover what hides behind every hooray word: a big and complicated set of unresolved controversies.

    So why should we worry about not getting a seat on this doomed bandwagon?

    • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

      I expected that would you express my feelings on the matter.

      • Sean II

        My pleasure. You’re several time zones away, so I couldn’t be sure of your availability. Figured I better step in and do the decent thing.

        • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

          You are a…mensch.

    • adrianratnapala

      But this post is a call to (politely, helpfully) call B.S. on the bait-and-switch that treats details of workplace agreements as on par with the right to a fair trial. I.e. Libertarians should get involved in it.

      Realistically Human Rights is no “doomed bandwagon”; it has become the modern term for what I would call basic or fundamental rights. It is true that people will often smell a rat when the piety is trotted out, but that state of affairs doesn’t really really help anyone.

  • martinbrock

    As a libertarian human rights theorist, I claim only two human rights, a right to life and a right to associate freely with other humans agreeing to respect other rights within the association. Free association implies a right to leave an association at will, with only my life, to join another association accepting me.

    • Sean II

      Now that you mention it, there is something funny about the idea of challenging libertarians to talk more about human rights.

      • martinbrock

        I thought we were always talking about human rights.

  • Sean II

    Separate question:

    Since about half the body of “human rights” is based on an economically ignorant refusal to grasp the principle of scarcity, how exactly are econ-loving libertarians supposed to collaborate with the project?

    To give just one example, the Covenant promises a right to “safe and healthy working conditions”. Now, this is the point in the conversation where libertarians are constitutionally required to jump up screaming: “Compared to what?”, “At what price?”, “At whose expense?”, “By whose standards?”, “Enforced how?”, etc.

    The people who made that list, in turn, are constitutionally required never to ask or answer such questions (well, perhaps they would like to have a crack at “whose expense”, but that’s as far as it goes).

    You see what I’m saying? This seems like an exceptionally unfit ground for cooperation.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bas.v.vossen Bas Van Der Vossen

      I see what you’re saying. My point is: you should be saying it. Constructively, supported with arguments, publicly.

      • http://www.facebook.com/bas.v.vossen Bas Van Der Vossen

        (Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting your responses aren’t constructive or supported with arguments. I like reading your responses. I just mean: write a paper and send it to a journal!)

        • Sean II

          So, you’ve called my bluff. Well played.

          • j_m_h

            Just take a collection of your comments and submit — isn’t that essentially what someone back in the 70s or 80s did? A truck driver or something that used to keep a journal.

          • Sean II

            You must be thinking of Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman-philosopher who used to be on Johnny Carson from time to time.

            BTW – “on Johnny Carson” is an authentic old dude way of saying “was a guest on the Tonight Show”.

    • http://duckofminerva.org/ Dan Nexon

      Some of the problem here is historical. Self-described libertarians can sometimes be found defending — or being indifferent to — coercive uses of state power on behalf of rich and influential ‘property’ holders (see below on the scare quotes).

      But some of it is more basic. For example, in practice, unsafe working conditions are often maintained by a constellation of state and state-sanctioned private force, corruption, and international indifference. Thus, what libertarians deride as “positive rights” that ignore “the principle of scarcity” are, in practice, critical enablers of, or at least significantly implicated in, preserving rights, including those of personal autonomy.

      And that’s even before we get to applications of libertarian theory to international practice in the context of what passes for ‘legitimate’ property rights in many countries. It seems to me that a great deal more pragmatism is warranted when it comes to protecting rights under the institutional conditions that prevail in much of the world. You can’t start, for example, with titular property in, say. Myanmar.

      • Sean II

        “…in practice, unsafe working conditions are often maintained…”

        Perhaps I failed to explain myself. The problem is that the very phrase “unsafe working conditions” is a negation of several things libertarians believe. Let me explain:

        1) Safety is not a dichotomous good, it’s a continuous one. As long as you’re not dead, you can always have more or less of it. There is thus no such thing as a “safe” workplace, and no such thing as an “unsafe” workplace.

        2) Like a lot of continuous goods, the price of safety curves up pretty sharply as you go, and the improvements become smaller and/or less certain. If you’re an electrician trying to reduce his risk of shock, buying rubber gloves represents a one-time outlay and a huge improvement in safety. Hooray! But if you’re an electrician trying to reduce his risk of getting killed by an active shooter, you can easily spend a small fortune on security without ever preventing an incident.

        3) There is a name for the type of person who, despite 1) and 2), still thinks he knows exactly how much safety there should be in, say, a Dhaka textile factory. Such people are called “central planners”, and we libertarians usually don’t get along with them too well…even when they use the language of human rights.

        • dn

          No, you didn’t fail to explain yourself. You’re just flogging a pedantic claim that doesn’t address the point.

          • Sean II

            Really? I kinda feel like I addressed the point until there was nothing left of it.

        • Guest

          ” Safety is not a dichotomous good, it’s a continuous one.”
          You need to define “safety”. The definition typically used in the safety industry is that “safety” is equivalent to “acceptable risk”, with “risk” being a measure of the potential “severity” and “exposure” to a “hazard”.
          Under this framework, safety is dichotomous, assuming there is agreement on how much risk is acceptable. But since acceptability is a subjective value judgment, then there are often conflicting conclusions as to what is “safe”.

          • Sean II

            “…assuming there is agreement on how much risk is acceptable.”

            When does that assumption make sense? Of the many things most people don’t do well, assessing risk is right up there with writing poetry.

            For example, every mom who sends her kid to summer camp regards the risk as “acceptable”, until something happens, at which point the camp is declared unsafe. In that moment we discover the truth: the kid’s mom didn’t really agree to a given level of risk, she deluded herself that risk = zero and then was shocked to find out otherwise.

            Or take a hard-charging blue collar union. They talk about safety like its something you can conjure simply by naming, but when added safety comes to them in the form of newly elaborate government-mandated procedures (for which they lobbied), suddenly they find out the cost of added safety is their time and their hassle, so they don’t like it any more. Now the union doesn’t even agree with itself!

            The only way to reach agreement on the level of safety is for people to understand it has a price (almost no one does), and to let that price function (which it sure doesn’t now).

        • j_m_h

          Sean, by your logic there’s no such thing as a safe or unsafe level of bacteria. That seems to be false so I think that even when there is a continuous function (for lack of a better word after a couple of strong beers) clearly in a number of situations there is a tipping point. That is, at some point we can draw a line.

          • Sean II

            Of course we can draw a line anywhere we want, as long as we don’t forget it’s arbitrary or consensual, and as long as we don’t forget there’s a price to be paid.

            What we can’t do is pretend the line is natural, or the price is zero, and what we should never do (looking at you here, Ralph Nader) is draw those lines after the fact.

          • j_m_h

            Perhaps we get in to semantics in the term “natural” but I do not think “we can draw the line anywhere we want”. I do think that there are some lines that will both tend to be selected by societies and tend to be self-reinforcing socially. If you don’t want to consider them natural perhaps think of them as schelling point or a type of nash equilibrium.

            I certainly agree that there’s nothing that’s a zero cost/price that is worth discussing in this context. Anything that is will be an incredibly boring discussion!

    • les kyle Nearhood

      See my response above, a Right it must be pointed out to people. cannot be something which costs other people. Then it becomes an entitlement, not a right.

  • Aeon Skoble

    I always frame my discussions of libertarianism in terms of human rights. The problem is that the “official” post-WWII human rights industry is committed to a range of positive rights that literally contradict negative rights. So it’s an uphill battle, but I do try.

  • Ryan Long

    “Libertarians are typically not very friendly to human rights.”

    What??

  • Hume22

    This is just a quick response/reaction: I tend to find the “human rights” literature poor philosophy (scare quotes because technical term). I dont do philosophy with an eye towards policy recommendation, so I dont see much reason to engage. I prefer to concentrate on the philosophy of rights more generally (of course, has implications for human rights).

  • Gabriel Armas-Cardona

    As a human rights lawyer whose libertarian roommate sent me this article, I feel I should respond.

    While I’m happy to have more discussion of human rights from different perspectives, it’s going to be hard to mesh the author’s goals with human rights. The challenge is that the rights that libertarians care about are generally already included in the corpus of human rights (e.g. political rights). Even the right to private property was cemented in the 50s as a response to communism (with exceptions like eminent domain where libertarian thinking could strengthen the right a little bit).

    The possible libertarian rights the author mentions “economic liberties, private productive property, trade” either are not considered rights or are not under threat. While someone has a right to disposes of his or her property as he or she chooses (e.g. buy, sell, and barter), there is no right to a well run marketplace. And private productive property, except for maybe dangerous industrial equipment, is rarely attacked by government. And if it is, such as a government-connected oligarch wants a local monopoly, normal property rights are often sufficient (assuming they’re fully applied).

    While, again, I’m happy to include libertarian contributions to human rights, it will be very difficult for the two sides to ignore their massive differences in views. The most obvious one is what the author brings up: HR people like economic and social rights, often things libertarians would never consider rights. Another massive chasm of different is that HR people care a lot about peoples that are under attack (e.g. ethnic cleansing or discrimination against the Roma), while libertarians are much more individual focused. In a stable society, focusing on the individual can make sense, but in times of transition where rights abuses occur because of people’s perceived identification with group A or B, then an individual focus can blind someone to the larger picture.

    To respond to a few other comments:
    @martinbrock:disqus , at what age would your second fundamental right apply? Do children have the right to freely associate and leave their parents at their whim? If it only applies to adults, what human rights apply to children, only the right to life?
    @Sean II, Article 2 of the Covenant on ESC rights says that “1. Each State Party … undertakes to take steps, … to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant….” The Covenant itself acknowledges that certain requirements depend on money. If people are starving in a poor state that can’t afford to feed its population, the state has violated no ones rights. If people are starving in a rich state that could afford to feed everyone, then the rich state has violated the right to adequate food. The question of “how” and “at whose expense” is all a matter of national choice. “By whose standards” is also a matter of national choice unless the country belongs to a regional human rights court that can impose its view (while considering a margin of appreciation).

    • martinbrock

      I don’t imagine many communities permitting children to leave their parents at will. People will not associate this way freely. If a community does adopt this principle, its children seem better of in other communities, so any problem seems to solve itself.

      As the monarch of my libertarian utopia, I’ll dictate that a community must permit a child to leave the community for another community whenever it frees the child of its parents. Essentially, an orphan may choose his orphanage.

      You might imagine children choosing extremely libertine communities offering them no supervision, but I don’t imagine free communities this way. Young children natural want adult supervision, and adults naturally want to supervise them.

      Children generally have only the rights that adults around them respect. In this sense, they are like the adults around them, who have only the rights that other adults respect.

      • Gabriel Armas-Cardona

        I don’t understand. Would a 10 year old have the right to leave his or her parents? Would a 5 year old or a 15 year old? If the community has no age of consent, what would dictate when the child is free to leave?
        As for your last sentence, the whole idea of Child Protective Services is that the child has rights that the child is not able to exercise without the power of the state. If a parent was abusing a 3-year old, could anything be done in a libertarian world?

        • Rick

          “If a parent was abusing a 3-year old, could anything be done in a libertarian world?”

          I doubt anything could be done if we hold the Rothbardian view that children are the owners of their children.

          For obvious reasons, most parents seem to prefer seeing their children as owing a duty to the parent for raising them, but the correct view is parent as trustee with a fiduciary duty to the child until it’s capable of surviving financially on its own. (After all, it’s the parent that put the child in vulnerable and dangerous position, not the other way around.)

          • martinbrock

            A parent’s duty to a child is consistent the child’s duty to supportive parents. The alternative is a state somehow commanding the young to support the old regardless of any reciprocity, as when states entitle the old to rents and compel children to pay the rents. People supporting no children become entitled to more of these rents precisely because they support no children. Expecting children to support people who supported them is more equitable to the children as well as the parents.

        • martinbrock

          Free communities may decide when a 5, 10 or 15 year old may leave parents. A central authority need not dictate rules governing every community.

          Since I already dictate that a community may not kill or hold a person against the person’s will, I’ll also dictate the age of majority at 16. Prior to this age, a community may remove a child from parents, but in this scenario, the community must permit the child to leave the community for a different community, and the parents may also leave.

          A free community may establish any standards protecting children that it deems proper. A central authority need not dictate these standards. Central authorities do not care more for children than others, and central authorities dictating rules don’t protect children in reality.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Theresa-Klein/1408551264 Theresa Klein

          You seem unconcerned with the possibility that (say) parents could lose custody of their children not because they are abusing them but because the parents smoke marijuana. Which actually happens regularly in the US.
          The Hakkens case began with the parents getting arrested for simple marijuana possession in a hotel room. There’s currently a case in Idaho of two medical marijuana activists who had their kids taken away because the police found marijuana in their house, and decided that thay counted as placing the kids in “imminent danger”.
          Human Right activists seem unconcerned. The only people paying attention to these stories are libertarians.

    • adrianratnapala

      The possible libertarian rights the author mentions “economic liberties,
      private productive property, trade” either are not considered rights…

      And right there, we see the point of the original post.

    • adrianratnapala

      It’s a bit odd to think that Libertarians (I hat the term by the way), would be unconcerned with ethnic cleansing. And “care a lot about peoples that are under attack” is horribly vague. True, economic liberals will oppose some types of special assistance for distressed groups but (without specifics) it’s hard to see the connection to rights.

      And if we do want to make it a society vs. the market thing, consider the case of the Dale Farm Travellers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dale_Farm. Thanks to over-regulation, and the power of government to undermine property rights, this out-group gets to have its home demolished.

      (I pick this one because I lived in the UK at the time. I’m sure our American friends can come up with their own versions).

      • Gabriel Armas-Cardona

        I’m sure that libertarians care about ethnic cleansing. My point was that the typically individualistic focus of libertarians wouldn’t be useful when people are being abused en masse because of the perceived group of affiliation.

        As for the Dale Farm, there are numerous examples of when the state uses eminent domain or similar land control functions to take property. I say in my original post how this is one area where libertarian thinking could promote the human right.

    • les kyle Nearhood

      I would like you to recognize that not all libertarian thought is given to just economic or property rights. I also find it problematic that you insist that those type of rights are not under threat. They are ALWAYS under threat. In fact nearly every action of modern governments in the economic sphere is designed to abuse some group of some of their property rights or give occasion to rent seeking.

      • Gabriel Armas-Cardona

        Of course not all libertarian thought is about economics. Libertarians care about free speech, the right to assemble, right to life, etc. But those negative rights are already embraced by human rights people. There is no disagreement.

        As for how economic rights are under threat. Is any government threatening to ban 3d printers? Or any other productive property? Sure, the government may impinge on private property, but that impingement may be justifiable or not a threat.

        • les kyle Nearhood

          That is your opinion. My opinion is that it is always a threat, at least a potential one. Furthermore, I do not agree with you that the human rights establishment is always concerned about non-economic rights. Where are the left wing groups who are protesting stifling political correctness?
          Which human rights groups are against seizing the arms of citizens?

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Theresa-Klein/1408551264 Theresa Klein

          Governments are threatening to ban GMO crops, and in some countries have done so. This is despite a vast scientific consensus in favor of them.

    • Sean II

      “If people are starving in a poor state that can’t afford to feed its population, the state has violated no ones rights. If people are starving in a rich state that could afford to feed everyone, then the rich state has violated the right to adequate food.”

      Thank goodness. Except, wait…how do we know when a state can afford to feed its people? How can we tell the difference between a rich state and a poor state? Spain in 1500…rich state or poor state? What about Spain today? What about Morocco…rich state or poor state? How much and what kind of food is required to “feed [a state's] people”? Just enough so they don’t starve? Enough so they get fat?

      “1. Each State Party … undertakes to take steps, … to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant….”

      Yea! More clarity. What are steps? How are they to be required? What happens if you don’t take them? How much time do I get to achieve progressively? When full realization has been reached, will a buzzer go off or should we just wait for the referee to call the game? What is the maximum of available resources? Which resources aren’t available? For what reasons is it okay to make a resource unavailable? Which things qualify as resources?

      “The question of “how” and “at whose expense” is all a matter of national choice.”

      Which makes the whole thing meaningless.

      • Gabriel Armas-Cardona

        Maybe I’m too absorbed within the western legal system, but all the undefined terms you point out are fine as they will be figured out by the courts. In a common law tradition (and what has partially been embraced in international law), the judge decides how any vague terms should be determined in any particular case. Conduct enough cases and the law becomes fleshed out.

        As stated above, for any particular country, if the country has signed on to a regional human rights court, the obvious answer of who decides is the regional court. the ECHR and the IACHR both regularly state what is or isn’t a violation. To reiterate, _how_ a state fulfills a duty is a domestic issue (e.g. it can provide a free market to deliver food to its people or it can deliver food in a command economy style. Either way, it fulfills its duty to ensure adequate food for its people.)

        • Sean II

          “all the undefined terms you point out are fine as they will be figured out by the courts”

          I think this gives you more confidence that it does me. In fact, I’m sure of it, since the amount of confidence I get from “figured out by the courts” is exactly…none.

          ___________________________________________________
          “how a state fulfills a duty is a domestic issue (e.g. it can provide a free market to deliver food to its people or it can deliver food in a command economy style. Either way, it fulfills its duty to ensure adequate food for its people.”

          So you say. I just phoned the actual history of command economies with respect to adequate food provision, and it had this to say: “Hahahahaha! Good one.”

          • Gabriel Armas-Cardona

            1) I understand your concern, but there are many international agreements, especially ones from that era, that are written similarly. The 1947 GATT, the foundational document for the WTO, is written similarly. Yet, with 20 years of cases before the WTO’s dispute system, the terms have been hammered out very well.

            2) My point was international law doesn’t care how the right is fulfilled, as long as it is. _If_ a command-style economy did feed everyone, then it would fulfill that right. If it didn’t, even when the country had the resources to feed everyone (the Holodomor is a very obvious and extreme example), then rights have been violated.

          • Fallon

            Counselor,

            Come on. The WTO is largely a corrupt and corruptible device that favors corporatist interests. Don’t be so naive. And I don’t think you are– since you are someone that has recommended markets and open borders (not ‘privatization’) as a way to undermine Armenia’s oligarchical structure….

            I do not mean that it is time to clean up the WTO– I am fully aware of the function that periodic “anti-corruption” campaigns play in preserving political institutions. A little bloodletting fools the public while settling internal struggles for power and, most importantly, leaves more fundamental questions of institutional legitimacy unexamined.

          • Sean II

            Part of my concern, Gabriel, is that I keep seeing the same kind of people who denied the Holodomor, lately joined by those who never heard of it and wouldn’t listen if you tried to tell them, among the ranks of people who staff and support organizations like the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, etc.

        • j_m_h

          I’d be much happier with “the judge seeks to understand how the term is used in the particular context of the case…” If we worry about central planners acting within the rule set the idea of establishing them in the context of creating the rules is troublesome.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Theresa-Klein/1408551264 Theresa Klein

      What about the right of illegal immigrants to work? That is under treat, in that it’s presently illegal for an undocumented immigrant to work, and for anyone to offer them employment.
      Shouldn’t it be a human right to be permitted to engage in productive labor? After all, the alternative is basically to say they should starve or rely on public assistance, or leave the country, all of which are morally problematic. Forced deportation is considered a violation of human rights. Making it illegal vfor people to work is essentially meant to starve people into leaving the country. Although it has the effect of driving them into a black market instead.

    • TracyW

      While someone has a right to disposes of his or her property as he or she chooses (e.g. buy, sell, and barter)

      Often people can’t dispose of their property as they see fit. There are still trade barriers in many areas of the world, such as quotas, land use regulations, bans on say selling marijuana or even bans on growing it for your own use. If we consider labour to be an important part of people’s property, licensing laws often ban people from working in particular professions without undergoing expensive training first, training that might well be prohibitive for say a solo parent with no savings.

      And private productive property, except for maybe dangerous industrial equipment, is rarely attacked by government.

      Have you heard of asset seizure laws? Police districts that benefit from taking money from people because they get to keep the money? Eminent domain being used to take land for well-connected private companies?

      In a stable society, focusing on the individual can make sense, but in times of transition where rights abuses occur because of people’s perceived identification with group A or B, then an individual focus can blind someone to the larger picture.

      Yes, but wouldn’t equally a group level focus risk blinding someone to the larger picture at times of transition when rights abuses are occurring because of people carrying out individual vendettas, or just killing anyone who gets in their way? We can never see everything perfectly, I don’t see any reason to think that the individual focus is any worse overall (including in times of transition) than the group-level focus.

  • Jean-Pierre Chauffour

    You may find my 2009 book: “The Power of Freedom: Uniting Development and Human Rights” (Cato Institute) a useful entry point for that dicsussion.

  • http://twitter.com/dgomezco Daniel Gomez Gaviria

    I enjoyed this contribution by Nigel Ashford: http://www.libertarian.co.uk/lapubs/polin/polin100.pdf

  • les kyle Nearhood

    I accept a doctrine of natural or self evident human rights but you must define what a right is. There can never be a right to food or medical care or anything like that, because a right is something of which the exercise of it does not diminish another person. In other words. my right to free speech does not negatively effect anyone Else’s rights.

    A right to something which has a definite cost such as health care means that someone has to pay for that. If you cannot pay then you cannot have a right to something which others must pay for. You cannot have a right which must diminish others.

    This is not to be confused with a right to access. I certainly believe that freedom includes a right to have access to goods or services, but someone must pay for it.

    • good_in_theory

      Analytically, every privilege implies that someone else lacks the ability to exercise a claim against the use of that privilege. There are no rights which do not diminish another person. Rather, there are rights which only diminish others in ways you find it acceptable to diminish them, e.g. diminishing their power to censor.

      • Sean II

        “There are no rights which do not diminish another person”

        But there are rights which everyone can have, as opposed to rights have impose a duty on one person while conferring a privilege on another.

        We can all have an equal right not to be killed, along with an equal duty not to kill each other.

        But if I am an orthopedic surgeon and you are a motorcycle enthusiast, then your “right to health care” gets you a privilege to demand my services, while I have a duty to provide them. I gain no privilege, and you have no duty.

        All rights are therefore not the same, as you would have it.

        • good_in_theory

          In other words, you find it acceptable to diminish the rights of others in some ways, but not in others, in conformity with some rule.

          Therefore, what you’ve said is perfectly consistent with what I’ve said and ‘all rights being the same,’ is a red herring.

          The move here is to focus attention on the principles by which we distinguish varieties of diminishing the powers others can exercise, not to say that all diminishments of power are the same, just as the move in the non-moralization of force/aggression debate is to distinguish the principles by which we legitimize the use of force, not to say that all uses of force are the same.

          • Sean II

            “In other words, you find it acceptable to diminish the rights of others in some ways”

            Nope. Not even close to a reasonable paraphrase. I find it unacceptable to use the word “rights” to describe things which give some people obligation-free privileges and other people privilege-free obligations. I find this unacceptable because other uses of the word “rights” involve things which given everyone the same privilege, and everyone the same obligation, at the same time.

            “The move here is to focus attention on the principles by which we distinguish varieties of diminishing the powers others can exercise…”

            No again. Your attempt to define rights simply as “things that diminish the powers of others” has not succeeded. That definition fails to capture the concept, and certainly fails to shed any light on the dispute.

            Kyle’s contention, and mine, is that some rights make more sense than others quite apart from normative considerations. Even if you’re all for it, the “right to heath care” creates serious logical problems. Even if you think it’s silly, the “right to non-aggression” does not create those same problems.

          • Rick

            “I find it unacceptable to use the word “rights” to describe things which give some people obligation-free privileges and other people privilege-free obligations.”

            Yeah, but if you look really close, usually those receiving “privilege-free obligations” are not really “privilege free.”

            For example, if we live on a small island and a few corporations have succeeded in monopolizing most of the food, water, energy, hospitals, etc., the commoners should have “a right” to access those necessities, and cannot live without them.

            Now, the people who control these necessities may be very smart and hard-working, and probably are entitled to above-average salaries, but they are operating under public/government-granted privilege that allows them to monopolize.

            Most commonly their privileges are derived from being granted (1) a limited-liability, eternal-life, corporate charter; (2) legal tender privileges, which allows certain currencies to pass as money, and to represent wealth, when they ordinarily wouldn’t; and (3) the privilege of profiting on the labor of others, and on the productive capacity of (commonly-owned) land, ocean and atmosphere.

          • TracyW

            Let me see: the privilege of being able to set up a limited liability company is easily extendable to everyone. As a Kiwi I set one up for $100 and an hour of my time, of which 40 minutes was spent thinking of the name. Obviously this is not true of every country, but it is easy to make such a privilege so cheap.
            Legal tender privileges – that means the currency can be accepted in payment of taxes or court ordered debts. Its very uncommon to have the privilege to rule a currency a legal tender. And that’s not much of a privilege anyway, unless you are a government. The problem for a private entity is that if you have the privilege to rule a currency legal tender then if you sign a contract that turns out to be costing you money you have an incentive to suddenly declare something valueless, eg pebbles, legal tender and use that in payment of your debts. Knowing that, anyone dealing with you is likely to insist on cash up front.
            The privilege of profiting on the labour of others and on the productive capacity of the land, ocean and atmosphere is one from which everyone benefits – if A grows wheat and B grows apples and they trade their output then both A and B have profited from each other’s labour and the productive capacity of land.

          • TracyW

            I’ll add that Scotland is doing quite well despite there being no banknotes that are legal tender in Scotland, only low- value coins, which are impractical for paying large sums. People agree to accept banknotes (or cheques or credit cards as payment). The Scottish experience implies that there’s not that much need for a legally tender currency.

          • Rick

            You’re substantially minimizing and understating the effect of the 3 privileges on markets, as well as penalizing those who don’t seek them and who simply want to labor under natural and common law principles.

          • TracyW

            On your third privilege, guilty as charged! Markets would not exist if it were not for your third privilege. Indeed, humans would not exist. I did not state this before because I assumed that any reader of this would have a working brain.

            On the other two, I have stated my reasons why I think they are not important. I note that you have not even attempted to respond to any of my arguments as to why they are not important, or presented any arguments of your own. Have you considered the possibility that it is you that has over-exaggerated, or indeed, in the case of legal tender made up out of thin air, the effects of your first two privileges?

          • Rick

            If people are benefitting from government-granted corporate privileges, legal tender privileges, and other franchise grants, and not adequately paying for them because of tax breaks, loopholes, willful blindness of the tax collector, etc. … then all the rest of us who choose to live without government-granted privileges, and who want to claim “self ownership” rights are put at a disadvantage. No?

          • TracyW

            You’re still not responding to my arguments, or making any argument of your own that your first two privileges (limited liability companies and legal tender privileges) are important at all.

            At the moment, it’s like you’re saying “If people are benefiting from libraries, and fluffy dice dangling from their rearview mirrors, and not adequately paying for them because of tax breaks, loopholes, wilful blindness of the tax collector, etc. … then all the rest of us who choose to live without fluffy dice, and who want to refuse to visit libraries are put at a disadvantage.” Well perhaps, but why should I care that your own choices are putting you at a disadvantage? And who cares if you have or don’t have fluffy dice anyway? They don’t actually make your car go faster.

            (Note, in my analogy: libraries = limited-liability companies as I do think both are useful. Fluffy dice =legal tender privileges as I don’t see any significant benefit to either. The analogies are not perfect – libraries are more expensive to provide than limited liability companies.)

          • Rick

            “You’re still not responding to my arguments, or making any argument of your own that your first two privileges (limited liability companies and legal tender privileges) are important at all.”

            Although (perhaps deliberately) confused in most peoples’ minds, there are presently 3 major income taxes, not one.

            There are taxes on income derived from corporate privilege which began in 1909, taxes on income derived from property sources authorized by the 16th Amendment, and taxes on income derived from legal tender privilege which began with the 1862-1872 income tax on Greenbacks (and was later resumed in 1913, then applied to wages in 1937).

            The point I’m trying to get across is that if these 3 income taxes are not properly levied, and the correct parties taxed or not taxed, great injustice can occur. The fact is that most businesses should be paying all 3 income taxes, but are only pay one or two, usually with tax breaks and loopholes available on top of that, while most natural person workers should be able to avoid the legal tender privilege income tax that is being levied on wages.

            So, in other words, I don’t understand how you fail to see the importance of improperly administered income taxes, particularly where libertarian self-ownership rights are being trampled upon (because wages should be one’s personal property, and taxed as such, and not taxed as “wage income”).

          • TracyW

            Rick, I notice that you still haven’t made any case that your first two privileges are at all important. Instead you are trying to change the topics to income tax laws (and only the ones of the USA).

            May I take it from this that you therefore now agree with me that my assessment that the first two privileges you mentioned are unimportant is the correct assessment?

          • Rick

            Important from whose perspective?

            As I explained, from the libertarian’s perspective, of course the income tax on legal tender privilege is important because exercising that privilege blocks us from claiming self-ownership rights in our labor/wages (but also prevents economic collapse, so it can’t be ignored or evaded).

            And the income tax on those holding corporate privilege is also important because the holders are not paying enough for the state-sponsored, state-enforced benefits of limited liability and eternal legal life. (Of course, from the view of those holding corporate privileges, the privilege is insignificant and unimportant. In fact, it seems to me that most corporate privilege holders don’t think they should be taxed or controlled at all because they need to be “free” to “create jobs.”)

          • TracyW

            Important from whose perspective?

            The perspective of someone who cares about the truthfulness or otherwise of their statements of course.

            As I explained,…

            Where did you explain this before? I can’t see any explanation in your previous comments, and I have re-read them just now looking for it.

            As for the arguments for legal tender privileges you are now making, Scotland is the obvious counter-example. Scotland has no legal tender larger than a coin, but it hasn’t collapsed economically, nor do Scottish people appear to have any major difference in blocking their self-ownership rights compared to those of any other Western country.

            (And I note that you don’t bother to explain how legal tender privilege would have these effects anyway, your claimed relationship strikes me about as plausible as the idea that fluffy dice make cars go faster).

            Your assertion that the holders are not paying enough for a limited liability company also strikes me as deeply implausible (and I note that you do not mention any numbers). The costs to the state are pretty minimal, the state maintains a register of names and shareholders (and had to pass the enabling legislation in the first place). The $100 set up charge in NZ strikes me as more than adequate to cover the state’s costs in this matter, it’s similar to the cost of a passport.

            Of course, from the view of those holding corporate privileges, the privilege is insignificant and unimportant.

            Wrong! Firstly, I myself, who own one of these corporations, stated above that I do think that this privilege is beneficial. To quote myself: “Note, in my analogy: libraries = limited-liability companies as I do think both are useful.” Secondly, revealed preference darling, if those holding corporate privileges think they’re insignificant and unimportant, why do you think they bother holding them at all?

            In fact, it seems to me that most corporate privilege holders don’t think they should be taxed or controlled at all because they need to be “free” to “create jobs.

            I can’t speak for all corporate privilege holders, but I agree that I certainly don’t want to be controlled. Not so much because I need to be free to “create jobs” but because I prefer making my own mistakes, and having the chance of learning from them. It’s noticeable of course that the more free-market societies do tend to have lower unemployment and higher wealth, but freedom has value on its own, quite apart from its economic impacts. But the way you state this implies that you think that corporate privilege holders like myself should be controlled. Why do you think this?

            And not wanting to pay taxes is a very general view across society, corporate privilege holders or not.

          • Rick

            It’s not the cost of obtaining a corporate charter that I’m talking about. It’s the cost to those who choose to continue operating as natural persons, and who wish to claim a property right in themselves.

            If corporate privilege holders are not adequately taxed and regulated, they will bury all those who have chosen not to partner with state and federal governments. Generally speaking, government will enforce the following protections *for* the privilege holder and *against* the non-privilege holder:

            “Flint v. Stone Tracy Co. 220 U.S. 107 (1911) was a United States Supreme Court case in which . . . the court ruled that the privilege of operating in corporate form is valuable and justifies imposition of a federal income tax:

            The continuity of the business, without interruption by death or dissolution, the transfer of property interests by the disposition of shares of stock, the advantages of business controlled and managed by corporate directors, the general absence of individual liability, these and other things inhere in the advantages of business thus conducted, which do not exist when the same business is conducted by private individuals or partnerships.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flint_v._Stone_Tracy_Company

            Regarding your comment about Scotland’s legal tender and their coin, I should have distinguished between “legal tender privilege” vs. “legal tender right.”

            “Legal tender privilege” refers to Congress conferring legal tender status on substitute currencies that would not ordinarily be accepted as money, such as unredeemable Federal Reserve notes and their derivatives, which require a regulatory income tax to control their use and distribution.

            “Legal tender right” refers to our right to claim Constitutional coin under Article 1, Section 8, Clause 5, which requires no grant of legal tender status by Congress because it’s legal tender by Constitutional right.

            I’m not familiar with Scotland’s constitution or monetary system, but if they’re not granting legal tender status to currency substitutes (i.e., any currency that is not coin), perhaps we should do the same, but I suspect the Federal Reserve system would collapse without its notes being declared legal tender by Congress.

          • TracyW

            Rick, I asked you where you explained this before, and you have not responded, where did you claim this?

            It’s the cost to those who choose to continue operating as natural persons, and who wish to claim a property right in themselves.

            If corporate privilege holders are not adequately taxed and regulated, they will bury all those who have chosen not to partner with state and federal governments.

            This seems deeply implausible. The court case you cite does not support your claim. About the only claim of privilege it makes that is special to corporations is “the general absence of individual liability”. The absence of general individual liability is of course a benefit in that it makes people much more willing to invest, knowing that if they put say $1,000 into a project, they are not putting their entire wealth at risk. This allows corporations to raise much more capital, and thus invest in more capital-intensive (and more speculative) projects, like the Eurotunnel. The benefits of this accrue not merely to people who own corporations, but shareholders (including people indirectly holding shares through their investment funds). Furthermore, the greater investments overall increases consumer surplus (two ways: by bringing down prices by supplying products more cheaply, and/or by bringing to the market products that never existed before), and thus benefits even people who never even buy shares.

            The other claims the court case makes are unconvincing: Steve Jobs’ death was certainly an interruption to the continuity of business at Apple. Corporations can be dissolved (see Enron). Having a business managed by corporate directors introduces a princpal-agent problem, which sets costs against the benefit of being able to employ corporate directors (Adam Smith thought that corporations would be inherently less efficient). And why being able to transfer property interests by the disposition of shares of stock rather than by any of the numerous legal tools available to people without companies should matter is unclear.

            Finally, returning to your original claim, regulation is notorious for allowing those who have partnered with state and federal governments to bury, under a sea of rulings, those who are less politically powerful. Looking to regulation to prevent power from being exercised by those partnered with governments is like mice looking to cats to prevent them from getting eaten.

            “Legal tender privilege” refers to Congress conferring legal tender status on substitute currencies that would not ordinarily be accepted as money, such as unredeemable Federal Reserve notes and their derivatives, which require a regulatory income tax to control their use and distribution.

            Why didn’t you give this definition of “legal tender privilege” at the start? I never guessed that you meant such a limited definition by this term. I gave my own definition, which you did not dispute, why did you not mention then that you meant a much much narrower privilege?

            And given that you mean such a narrow definition, only related to the US, and only related to Federal Reserve notes and their derivatives, how come you said that these privileges were “most commonly” derived from them?

          • Rick

            Isn’t this a libertarian blog site where self-ownership is supposed to be one of the most important ideals?

            I don’t believe this is the forum to expound upon the benefits of corporate and legal tender privilege, or to start questioning firmly established Supreme Court rulings about corporate privilege.

            The bottom line is that self-ownership is impossible while exercising either of the two federal privileges we’ve been discussing.

            Even the produce from a back yard garden can’t be one’s property if the garden is incorporated, or the produce is converted into a legal tender that is federally privileged.

          • TracyW

            I don’t believe this is the forum to expound upon the benefits of corporate and legal tender privilege,

            Yes, I’ve noticed that. Whenever I’ve questioned you about the details of your theories, you’ve attempted to change the topic.

            or to start questioning firmly established Supreme Court rulings about corporate privilege.

            Perhaps. But very weak Supreme Court rulings making deeply implausible claims, such as “Flint v. Stone Tracy Co. 220 U.S. 107 (1911) ” should be criticised whenever they are mentioned.

            And it’s appropriate in any forum where someone is making an argument about economics to point out that the courts are not a relevant authority on questions of economics (or indeed any science).

            The bottom line is that self-ownership is impossible while exercising either of the two federal privileges we’ve been discussing. Even the produce from a back yard garden can’t be one’s property if the garden is incorporated, or the produce is converted into a legal tender that is federally privileged.

            What a weird set of beliefs. If you own a company that owns your backyard garden then of course the produce is also your property. (Of course you don’t own the produce from other people’s backyard gardens). Your second statement is even weirder. Money that can’t be owned is useless as money, including as legal tender. For example, when I pay my taxes, I pay in legal tender using money I own. How could I pay my taxes if I can’t own legal tender?

          • Rick

            You can’t own a company that is incorporated. The state is your partner and is indemnifying you. You may have some control and some illusion of ownership in the shares, but you can’t really own any part of a state-sponsored, state-enforced legal fiction, i.e., a corporation.

            Nor can you own someone’s debt, which is what Federal Reserve notes are, and the only reason you’re able to pay your taxes with them is because Congress granted them legal tender status in the U.S. Code.

            Current U.S. coin is a fully public currency, so you can have a much greater degree of control over that when it’s in your possession, but technically speaking, even current coin is really the property of the money issuer (Congress and the Treasury Department).

          • TracyW

            Rick, I don’t know what definition of ownership you are using, I assumed before that you were using a dictionary definition.

            Under the dictionary definition, it is indeed possible to own a company, or someone’s debt. People do legally own companies, I assure you that I do have legal ownership of my company. People do legally buy and sell debts on a regular basis.

            Furthermore, the state does not indemnify me. The state gives my company limited liability, but it does not cover my company’s possible debts. If someone loans money to my company, and my company can’t repay it, the state does not generally step in to pay the money to them, because the incentive for the person to run up crazy debts is massive.

            And what do you mean when you say “technically speaking, even current coin is really the property of the money issuer”? So if you have $20 in coins in the USA, in your purse, the US Treasury Department could just reclaim them, no due process, no compensation? Yikes! If so, I’m glad I’m not an American citizen. But, if the US Treasury Department can do this, why does anyone accept the money? I find your claim here pretty implausible, and given the poor quality of your arguments above, I suspect this is another case where you are actually just making stuff up out of thin air, like your claims about the benefits of legal tender privileges.

          • TracyW

            Rick, I also note that you still have not replied to my questions about where you previously explained something (as you claimed you did, but I cannot see any past evidence of this). Nor have you explained why you think that corporate privilege holders or the use and distribution of legal tender should be controlled, given the miserable history of central planning attempts in the 20th century.

            Why are you avoiding these questions?

          • Rick

            “Rick, I also note that you still have not replied to my questions about where you previously explained something . . . ”

            TracyW, I don’t know what you’re talking about here. I’ve been elaborating on legal tender privilege since we started this conversation, and also in a comment to SeanII (item #3) before that. In any case, I don’t wish to elaborate any more on the subject.

            However, regarding your comment about my “definition of ownership,” you make a good point that “ownership” is not a “one size fits all” concept, so we need to specify what kind of ownership or property rights we’re talking about.

            In other words, we “own” different things in different ways, and to different degrees, where “ownership of property” refers to the amount of control we have over a thing, and how much legal power we have to exclude others (including government) from accessing, controlling or taking it.

            Your post reminded me that a few months ago I wrote a “A Property Rights Grading System” to reconcile and prioritize various property rights based on my understanding of Lockean and Georgist theory (and yes, I made it up): https://www.facebook.com/groups/CommonWealthTax/doc/188089091304242/

            As you can see, we do have a low grade (#9) property right in things like money, shares of stock, annuities, etc., but under our (Lockean-based) Constitution the highest possible grades attainable (grades #1 & #2) go to the property right in our minds, bodies and labor. Granted, there is much less awareness about the importance of these high grade property rights now that slavery has been abolished, but nevertheless they remain claimable and part of the fabric of our Constitutional system.

          • TracyW

            I’ve been elaborating on legal tender privilege since we started this conversation,

            If that was true, then you’d be able to quote yourself in a prior comment where you explained it.

            In any case, I don’t wish to elaborate any more on the subject.

            What a shame, it was such a provocative idea, so far removed from common-sense that it would have been very impressive if you could have mounted some (or even one) good arguments in defence of it.

            I wrote a “A Property Rights Grading System” to reconcile and prioritize various property rights based on my understanding of Lockean and Georgist theory… As you can see,

            Why should I bother reading your property rights grading system, when you have not bothered elaborating on (let alone defending) your earlier statements about “legal tender privileges” and “corporate privileges”? The process of debate is the best way I know of of increasing our own understanding of our ideas, and of removing errors from them. Your failure to do this on two topics lowers my opinion of your thinking on all topics.

      • les kyle Nearhood

        That is a sophistic argument. I do not accept it.

  • Matt Lister

    If I were you co-blogger Fernando Teson, I might feel slightly off-put and unduly ignored by some of this post!

    • http://www.facebook.com/bas.v.vossen Bas Van Der Vossen

      I am a great admirer of Fernando and his work. But his stuff is very much the exception, not the rule. And I was talking about the rule.

  • Rick

    ” . . . libertarian thinkers have largely failed to show how their thinking can make a valuable contribution to human rights theory.”

    Yes, an individual’s (legally enforceable) property right in his/her mind, labor and body is supposed to be the central libertarian human right, and the right from which all others are derived, yet I don’t see any serious discussion about it anyway in libertarian circles.

  • John Tomasi

    Great post, Bas. But may I suggest a slightly different question? How about this one: Is there a distinctively *bleeding heart libertarian* approach to international human rights? Such an approach, presumably, would seek to combine a commitment to distributive fairness with a strong commitment to private economic liberty. Morally, historically and factually, this seems like a very attractive pairing to me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Theresa-Klein/1408551264 Theresa Klein

    This is a great point. There are lots of things that are in the human rights discourse that libertarians rightly object to. (i.e. the right to health care), but there are also things NOT on the list that libertarians should be advocating for.
    Example. The right to work. I’m not talking about “Right To Work” anti-union laws. I’m referring to the plight of immigrants who must ask the government permission to be allowed to hold a job. Every person, everywhere should have the human right to engage in productive labor and sell the product of his labor. Laws forbidding certain people from working are violatons of this basic human right. See Bryan Caplans recent comments on EconLog.
    Obviously, private property rights would be added to this list.
    I’d also add the right to retain custody of one’s children, barring some due process that grants you the right to be judged by a jury with some evidentiary standards. Too many cases of parents losing custody of kids due to the actions of overzealous child welfare agencies and capricious judges.

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