• Tag Archives rights
  • Why a Free Society Cannot Transform Wishes into Rights


    Any careful observer of American politics must be struck by the ever-expanding roster of things people have asserted rights to. But when such arguments are seriously considered, there is little to them beyond shared desires or wishes for certain things, which supposedly implies that there ought to be rights to them.

    From there, it is but one further step to legislative, executive, or judicial attempts to create such rights, promoted as social improvements guaranteed by government.

    This “ought implies is” argument about rights reverses the claim that “is implies ought,” which David Hume famously shot down. It ignores that in a world where scarcity is inescapable, our desires always outpace what is producible, which means that newly asserted rights may well be impossible delusions. Further, it ignores that making good on any particular newly created right must violate other’s existing rights to themselves and their efforts. And it, too, deserves rejection.

    Few have thought as carefully about this confusion between wishes and rights as Leonard Read. His insights are particularly well developed in his “Doctor, Whoever You Are,” section in his 1969 Let Freedom Reign. In a world where turning one wish into a political right leads to still more attempts to use the same magic on another wish, and every such step further erodes liberty, Read’s views are worth serious consideration on their 50th anniversary.

    “Now in vogue is a fearful combination of wishes and methods, as fanciful as Aladdin’s lamp…the transmutation of wishes into rights! Do you wish for better housing? Then better housing is a right. Do you wish for…higher returns for goods and services, shorter hours of labor, protection from competition? Then these are rights. Do you wish for free medical care? Then free medical care is a right!”

    “And what is the nature of the jinni called upon to transmute wishes into rights?… government. It extorts from all, allocating the legalized loot to those who effectively make their wishes heard.”

    “How do we go about healing this sickness? We must acquire an understanding that wishes, regardless of how numerous, do not constitute a right. I have no more right to your professional attention than you have a claim on me to wash your dishes. We are dealing with an absurdity.”

    “We live and prosper by specialization and exchange…others tend to encourage me to specialize at what is of value to them, and I tend to encourage them to specialize at what is of value to me. This is how people in a free society exert their wishes. But note that these wishes do not carry with them any right on my part to command what others shall produce or any right to force on them the terms of exchange.”

    “When the notion that a wish is a right is put into effect by police force—the only way it can be done—then specialization is no longer guided by consumer wishes nor are the terms of exchange…Other citizens are then forced to perform labor for which they receive absolutely nothing in return. Exchange is by coercion rather than by free choice.”

    “The fact that many of us wish more medical attention than we can afford does not give us a right to your [physician] services or a right to force others to [finance them]…wishes to the contrary notwithstanding!”

    Benjamin Franklin is said to have written, “If man could have half his wishes, he would double his troubles.” He was referring to the problems our wishes would cause ourselves. But we go far beyond causing ourselves problems whenever we try to transform our wishes into rights.

    We cause all our fellow citizens problems because our efforts to create rights for ourselves must pick their pockets—assert our ownership of their resources rather than acknowledging their self-ownership—despite lacking moral or ethical justification. Leonard Read rightly recognized this as no different than looting enforced by a “might makes right” mentality.

    If not for the corrupting lure of something for nothing, people would long ago have rejected the idea that wishes imply rights. But as ever-more goodies have been added to bait the lure, most Americans seem to have decided to stop thinking about the burdens borne as a result of these invented rights.

    Our reasoning has been warped by a too-narrow view of our self-interest, which ignores what we can achieve jointly only by defending voluntary arrangements, which respect one another’s self-ownership. That makes it particularly important to revisit Leonard Read’s wisdom about wishes and rights, for otherwise our coveting will corrupt and punish us further and further.

    Gary M. Galles

    Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. His recent books include Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014) and Apostle of Peace (2013). He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

    This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

  • Governments Don’t Give People Rights

    Governments Don’t Give People Rights

    Today’s Quotation of the Day is from pages 22-23 of Georgetown University law professor Randy Barnett’s must-read 2016 book, Our Republican Constitution:

    If one views We the People as a collection of individuals, a completely different constitutional picture emerges [from the one seen today by “Progressives”]. Because those in government are merely a small subset of the people who serve as their servants or agents, the “just powers” of these servants must be limited to the purpose for which they are delegated. That purpose is not to reflect the people’s will or desire – which in practice means the will or desires of the majority – but to secure the pre-existing rights of We the People, each and every one of us.

    Each of us has, throughout our lives, many agents. Some are formal (such as lawyers and realtors) while others are informal (such as the friend who agrees to run an errand for you). These people serve us, and we, in turn and in various ways, serve them – for example, we pay them money for their services.

    Importantly, the ‘power’ of each of these agents to act for us is confined to the purpose for which we hire that agent. I delegate to my real-estate agent the power to represent me in selling my home; I do not thereby delegate to her the power to sell my car, to decide how my children are to be educated, or what I may eat for lunch.

    Under the American constitutional system, elected officials are agents of the citizens of the politically defined regions from which these officials are elected. These political agents are no more the originating sources of their own powers and duties to represent the citizens who are their principals than, say, is your realtor the originating source of her power and duties to represent you, the person who hired her to sell your house.