Do positive rights require enforcement?

When I was in Madison, I was arguing against a large group of students who were anti-globalization and pro-communal gardens. What happened? Part of it could be explained by the fact that my significant other hangs out with a right leaning crowd, but now it’s moved to individuals she doesn’t even associate with!

Earlier, I published a rather long exchange with a self-proclaimed libertarian. I actually think he was a libertarian. Now, the group I argue with professes to advocate libertarianism, but tends, in my view, to advocate anarchism. In my view, these kinds of views tend to be motivated by anti-government sentiment, but haven’t been thought through clearly enough to be clear, complete, or consistent.

Here’s a recent discussion I had on Facebook with two other “libertarians”:

L1: Libertarians embrace the concept that humans are born with inherent rights. We reject the idea that a natural right can ever impose an obligation upon others to fulfill that “right.” – MO Libertarian Party Platform (2010 proposed addition) This reminds me a Rand Paul’s answer to the question “Is healthcare a right?” [followed by a link to Rand Paul’s answer].

Me: That is nonsensical. Any “inherent right” requires enforcement, which is a claim on others. An unenforced or unprotected right cannot plausibly be called a “right”.

L1: Andrew, I don’t understand- who enforces my rights?

ME: Typically, it’s the government in some form, though it could be some other body or an individual. Your right to life (sometimes construed as a right “not to be killed unjustly) is protected by the legal and judicial system (e.g., laws against murder and power granted to judicial bodies) and the executive branch (law enforcement). In my view, a right to life necessarily entails a claim right to enforcement of violations against your right. I’m not sure what good or how meaningful it would be to have unprotected rights. Your right to liberty and the “pursuit of happiness” is protected by laws that restrict violations of your right to move about freely. Let’s say you are kidnapped and locked in a room with a phone. Should you be able to call law enforcement to arrest the kidnapper and release you from the room? If you believe the answer is yes, then you believe that “a natural right can…impose an obligation upon others to fulfill that right.’” I take a more extreme view. I believe that a person’s right to life entails an even greater claim than law enforcement. For example, if you see a child drowning in a water fountain nearby (let’s say 10 ft away), I believe you have an obligation to try your best to save her. She has, in my view, a claim right on you derived from her right to life.

In general, I don’t think it’s helpful to discuss issues in terms of rights. I may change my mind some day. I don’t think it’s helpful to ask, “Do individuals have a right to X?” We decide whether or not individuals have rights, and we generally do so based on whether or not we think it will benefit society. It used to be the case that individuals didn’t have a right to public education. But, we decided that our society would benefit if we granted universal public education, and then we started saying “Individuals have a right to public education.” We did the same things with the right to life and the right to move about freely, it just happened a long time ago. The question shouldn’t be “Is health care a right?”, it should be “If we granted universal access to health care, would it benefit individual and aggregate well-being?”

L1: I can see what you mean about law enforcement being a claim on others, since we are forced to pay for it.

But I still feel doctors shouldn’t be forced to provide us healthcare, farmers shouldn’t be forced to provide us with food, homebuilders shouldn’t be forced to build us houses, teachers shouldn’t be forced to educate us and our neighbors shouldn’t be forced to pay for it all. I also think all of these examples are not rights – they are privileges.
I would rather educate not legislate issues of morality. And of course we have an obligation (this is exactly what Rand Paul said in the video)

ME: I heard Rand Paul use a similar line of reasoning in the video. But we don’t “force” or coerce anyone to provide the goods that come along with rights, we compensate them. We compensate law enforcement officers and judges who protect the right to life and the right to move about freely; we compensate the farmers who provide the food welfare recipients purchase using food stamps; we compensate the doctors who provide Medicare patients with care (though arguably not at a fair price).

All things equal, I would rather educate than legislate issues of morality, too. It’s a lot easier! But sometimes coercion is necessary. It may not be enough to say to the burglar that breaks into your house and steals your belongings, “Hey, don’t you know that that’s immoral? Let me give you some books that explain why…” and then hope he comes back a week later a changed man with all your stuff. It seems appropriate to have a coercive force (law enforcement and due process) that protects individual property rights, and deters others from violating them.

L1: I didn’t say we force them, I said they shouldn’t be forced, which seems the way things are headed. I agree that they are compensated but then there’s the question of do you think your neigbor should be forced to compensate for your “rights”?

And if we make all these privileges into rights and we force our neighbors to pay for our “rights”, then why work? Even communication is considered a right now a days. I feel only law enforcement, that protects my inherent rights such as property rights, can be justified. As of now, I can’t justify forcing my neighbor to pay for my healthcare, shelter, food, education, cell phone, etc.

L2: I don’t see how even law enforcement can be logically justified. First of all, the bulk of law enforcement is committed to punishing those “guilty” of victimless crimes and, in the pursuit of such, cause far more violence than they stop or prevent.

Second, even when it comes to legitimate crimes such as rape and murder, law enforcement provides for no restitution for victims. Instead, it forces the victims to pay for the incarceration of the perpetrators in an environment that encourages recidivism.

Third, despite the dubious value of the “services” provided by law enforcement, we have a gun pointed at our heads forcing us to pay for it. None of us are given the option of signing up or opting out. Even if we choose to invest in far superior means of defending our life and property than what law enforcement provides, we are still extorted into paying for their “services” under pain of kidnapping and imprisonment in a government run rape room. I reject any use of violence that is not defensive in nature, and pointing a gun at someone to make them hand over their money is utterly immoral, no matter how wonderful the cause (be it universal health care, law enforcement, or anything else).

ME: I suggest you read the SEP entry for punishment:

Your understanding certainly points to a few complexities involving the justification of punishment. However, I believe it ends up being justified both on utilitarian and retributivist grounds.

Your “collecting taxes is immoral” argument is also confused. You don’t have a right to live in this country. It’s the collective property of the United States. If you choose to live here, you ought to obey its laws and pay its taxes. That’s the social contract. If you choose to break the contract, then we, collectively, have a right to put you in the rape room. Now, you certainly should be able to leave and become a pirate or live in Somalia, or some other anarchist state if you like, and you probably should if you think you’d be better off. But if you want to take advantage of our superb market system, infrastructure, and democratic government, you ought to pay your dues and stop bitching.

L2: Regarding punishment, given the varying values and desires that people who are victimized by criminals might have, I think the optimal way of responding to this problem is via a free market. To the extent that retribution is really useful, I’m sure it would be represented therein.

As for the rest of your reply, I disagree with it entirely. From the notion that we own nothing but that all belongs to the state, to the validity of a social contract, to the acceptance of violence against those who have done others no harm, to the laughable notion that we have a “superb market system,” I’m saddened by your view. Perhaps I’m mistaken in this assumption, but assuming that you would support the use of violence against me simply because I disagree with you, I see little reason to continue any conversation with you.


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