Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Rights Talk

Kyle has in interesting piece up over at Ordinary Gentlemen dealing with the question of what one can have a right to. He's responding to a Matt Walsh piece, and I'm not remotely a fan of Walsh, but I have the feeling that Walsh is hinting inarticulately at a fairly standard conservative idea about rights which Kyle is perhaps not encountering all that clearly. Walsh's original assertion is that, "You don’t have a right to a product that must be provided to you through governmental coercion of a third party." Kyle responds:
If Walsh meant that you don’t have a right to force other people to buy products for you, or that governmental coercion is a poor means of providing you with products, he phrased this sentence quite oddly. If, as he wrote, he meant to deny a right pertaining to a product, then he’s implying a questionable theory of rights.

What if a product can be provided to you without governmental coercion? Do you then have a right to the product? If so, what is the basis of that right? It can’t be your need for it or the possibility of satisfying it, because those conditions can be present where there’s governmental coercion.

With or without governmental coercion, you need water, food, clothing, shelter, and other life necessities, but according to Walsh, you don’t have a right to these goods if the government has to coerce someone into providing them to you. Your need for them and their availability to you do not establish your right to them. Or if either or both of these conditions do establish a right, the right vanishes under the condition that it must be provided to you through governmental coercion. Is your right to basic human needs so relative?

In general conservatives and libertarians hold what I'll call a negative view of rights rather than a positive view of rights.

Thus, the right to free exercise of religion is a right to be able to practice your religion just as you would have were there no other party to show up and order you around. The right to free speech is the right to say what you think to the same extent that you could were there no one to show up and order you not to. The right to free association is the right to form communities and groups in the same way you could were there not some bigger and badder group to show up and order you not to. The right to private property is the right to hold on to that which you make yourself or gain through free exchange with others -- just as if there were not someone else to show up and take it from you.

In other words, this view of rights holds that the state should not force itself into all aspects of your life. It should restrain itself from interfering in certain areas. In this sense, it applies to the state in a special way that it doesn't apply to others. So, for instance, the right to free speech means that you can express yourself in your own venue without being forcibly shut up, but it doesn't mean that some other private third party (say, a newspaper) is required to print your opinions. It just means that the state can't arrest you for speaking your mind, or show up and confiscate your printing press because they don't like what you printed.

Now, given that, it doesn't make much sense to talk about a "right to food" or a "right to water" or a "right to shelter" -- except to the extent that it is wrong for the state to show up and take away your food, your water, or your shelter. Someone holding to this negative vision of rights might hold that you have a right to pursue food, water and shelter (or separately that you have a moral duty to provide food, water and shelter to those around you who are in need of it but don't have the ability to provide it to themselves) but they wouldn't argue it's a right because it's not something you naturally have. If there's a famine and there is no food to be had, saying "I have a right to food!" won't make your plate fill. However, even if there's a famine and you're in the midst of dying, you can still say what's on your mind unless some other person shows up and tries to stop you.

The view of rights which produces a "right to food" or a "right to shelter" isn't based on the idea of "what dignities does a person naturally have unless someone shows up to take them away" but rather on "what things should the state commit to providing to its citizens." It is, I'd argue, a somewhat later vision of rights: a mid 19th century one rather than a late 18th century one. Which is perhaps why this positive view of rights (the right to something) is far more common in Europe, in which the major democracies date to the late 19th or the 20th century, while the earlier negative view of rights is more common among US conservatives who date their formative influence to the American Revolution.


August said...

It is a perversion, not just a new view or definition, for how can a government provide something without first taking it away from someone else? By making all sorts of things a 'right' they create a pretext for interfering with original set of rights.

Darwin said...

Yeah, I guess it's just a matter of how deeply I align with the more conservative conception of rights, but I don't see how you can talk about a "right" to something which may or may not actually be available.

Jenny said...

Matt Walsh is one of those people that I think I generally agree with the gist of his points, but I desperately wish he would just stop talking.

Darwin said...


Paul Zummo said...

I like Matt Walsh, but to each his own I suppose.

His comments section, though - yeesh.

Foxfier said...

It's a problem of equivocation; in the US, in public civil discourse, "right" is used in the context of "things which must be protected/assured by the government"-- in keeping with a right to be paid for your work, to say what you want, etc.

A lot of people want to drag things inherent to human dignity-- a totally different situation-- into "stuff the government should (at least claim to have a program in place to) provide."

It's kind of like reading about social justice in the original sense, and then getting a secular lecture on "social justice." (Apparently, it means that I should be punished for the claimed sins of people who look a little like me. Because fairness?)

MrsDarwin said...

I often wonder how Matt Walsh bears up under the heavy burden of being right all the time.