Monday, October 12, 2009

Thought of the Day

Russ Roberts:
Something went wrong in America when "rights" came to mean what others owe you via force instead of protection from force by others.


thinking said...

Russ Roberts seems to be fighting a battle no one else is, or at least very few.

Perhaps Roberts could give us some examples, instead of his "tweet."

Of course, laws protecting rights will have an enforcement mechanism built in, but this should come as no surprise.

For instance, does Roberts have any problem with the fact that during the Civil Rights movement, sometimes the National Guard and police forces were used to protect minority rights from acts of egregious discrimination? I don't think he does, but his "tweet" sounds eerily familiar to the refrains echoed by many a segregationist during that era.

Again, it's hard to know exactly what is being referenced here...I just wish Russ Roberts would come out and say what he really means. Perhaps he doesn't because he knows it would be easy to rebut.

Brian Hollar said...

Actually, quite a few are fighting this battle. It is a huge debate in legal and policy circles.

The debate is between "negative" (freedom from) and "positive" (freedom to) rights. Here is what Wikipedia has to say:

"Rights considered negative rights may include civil and political rights such as freedom of speech, private property, freedom from violent crime, freedom of worship, habeas corpus, a fair trial, freedom from slavery and the right to bear arms. Rights considered positive rights may include other civil and political rights such as police protection of person and property and the right to counsel, as well as economic, social and cultural rights such as public education, health care, social security, and a minimum standard of living. In the "three generations" account of human rights, negative rights are often associated with the first generation of rights, while positive rights are associated with the second and third generations."

I don't think Roberts or most anyone else is opposed to using police to protect individuals from violence. Freedom from violence is actually a negative right and precisely what Roberts was talking about.

Once you start granting strong "positive rights", the concern is that there is no effective limitation or "brake" on the use of government power to force people to do what they want. The thorny issue with positive rights is that they typically require the government to take from one individual to give to another in ways that are often arbitrary. For example, if you have a "right to a job", that means someone else has to give it to you and pay you. The only way to ensure everyone has a right to a job is to force people to hire you -- even if you're a bad employee. This is contradictory to most notions of liberty and freedom of association.

America was founded primarily on the notion of negative and not positive rights. Most positive rights -- such as police and courts -- are put in place to protect negative rights. Going to far afield from these principles is contrary to the principles, philosophy, constitutional framework, and jurisprudence of America's founding.

And even if Roberts was one of the few fighting this battle (which he's not), that is no argument against his view. Few were fighting for the abolition of slavery when William Wilberforce started his campaign against it. Few were protesting for civil rights when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus. I think you'd agree that that is no valid proof that they were in the wrong.

BTW, "tweets" by necessity are limited to 140 characters. Roberts summarized this issue brilliantly and succinctly. If you are interested in learning more about his views, he has spoken far more deeply on this issue in a variety of other forums, which should be quite easy to find.