Wednesday, December 17, 2003
“Natural Rights” is the idea that nature (or God) imbues individuals with certain entitlements, called “rights”. These rights exist independently of any actions by the government or other individuals. Typical rights to which it is believed individuals are entitled include life, liberty, and property. The government has no role in the creation of these rights, but a primary, or possibly the only, duty of government, is to secure these rights through the coercive application of its monopoly on the use of violence. If the government acts in a manner inconsistent with an individual’s natural rights, the government is violating those rights and committing an immoral act.
The primary objection to the concept of natural rights is that they do not exist. To say that I “own” this laptop computer on which I am typing these words, that I have the exclusive right to use or dispose of this computer, makes no statement about the physical properties of this computer that can be confirmed or contradicted by empirical observations. Rights simply do not exist in nature. The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously referred to natural rights theory as “nonsense on stilts”. Relying on religious belief to support the idea of natural rights decreed by God demands proving: 1) God exists. 2) God has communicated with humanity. And 3) The rights being supported have been endorsed by God in His communications to us.
Supporting the existence of natural rights without reference to Devine Decree is even more precarious. Unless you believe that the dinosaurs had natural rights to life, liberty and property that were constantly being violated by other dinosaurs, you must construct some theory as to how such rights came into existence. Theories have been propounded asserting that rights to own unclaimed property can come about by touching it, viewing it, or simply by being the first person to assert such a claim to a specific piece of property. These can all be easily dismissed. How can any of these actions change a physical object in such a way as to connect a particular person to that object? If you and I are wandering through the desert looking for water, can I charge you for a drink at the watering hole simply by yelling “I saw it first!” or maybe dipping my hand in it and yelling “Tag, it’s mine!”? And in case the “simple assertion” method for claiming unclaimed property is valid, I, Timothy Roscoe Carter, hereby claim all previously unclaimed sub-atomic particles and empty space in this or any other universe for myself, my heirs, and my assignees.
A better theory, developed by John Locke, states that I have a right to property that I have “mixed” with my own productive labor. It works like this: I discover gold in the ground. I dig it out. I melt the gold, and then I skillfully form it into a beautiful necklace. Should not the necklace now be mine, to wear, to sell, or to give away as I so chose? There are two ideas at work here. One is dessert. Through skill and hard work, I made a beautiful necklace out of material that nobody else even knew existed. I deserve the necklace. The second idea could be best described as “labor theft”. Suppose someone else takes the necklace without my permission. They are now benefitting, without my agreement, from my skill and hard work in finding the gold, digging it out of the ground, and making the necklace. I have now worked for that person without my consent and without receiving remuneration. Slavery by stealth.
From a strictly materialist standpoint, this theory suffers from the same defect as all natural rights theories of property ownership: There is no spiritual or physical connection between the creator of the necklace and the necklace itself. For those who believe that moral rules can arise from pure logic, there are still problems. Suppose you want to use the gold to make electrical wire. Why should I prevent you from doing so? My discovery of the gold has been dismissed as the “Tag, it’s mine!” theory, you never consented to giving up any freedom to use the gold in exchange for my digging it out of the ground, and you have no plans to benefit from my having crafted the gold into a necklace. So the labor theory of property, that is the theory of using force to prevent others from using an object you manipulated without their consent, has no logical moral force. Still, the idea that I should control the benefits resulting from my own efforts intuitively strikes most people as inherently fair. But it will be shown later that fairness is a social contract concept that can be analyzed separately from morality.
There is a less common but more serious objection to Natural Rights theories. (More serious than pointing out that natural rights do not exist? Yes.) Even if one concedes that natural rights could have arisen out of nature, it is impossible that they can exist now. No theory of natural rights allows for natural rights to exist to property that was obtained by stealth or force from another, or from a voluntary transfer from someone without a natural right to the property. And yet, this is how virtually all property that currently exists in the world was obtained. The United States stole California from Mexico, which had stolen it from Spain, which had stolen it from the native inhabitants, who themselves where not introduced to the concept of land-grabbing wars by white men. This pattern repeats itself everywhere on planet Earth, often with stretches of decades or centuries in which all land is controlled through the coercive violence of a dictatorial government. Before the industrial revolution, much if not most wealth throughout history worldwide was produced with the forced labor of slaves and serfs. Since the industrial revolution, most individuals have been both the victims and the beneficiaries of forced transfers of wealth by governments. So if rights to property ever actually rose out of nature, they were violated out of existence before recorded history and have not had a chance to arise again since. Nor is it clear how such rights could arise in the future. Rectifying these past wrongs would require knowledge no one now possesses about the original rightful owners and their proper heirs, as well as the coercive taking of property from the innocent transferees of long dead perpetrators.
Why is rectification a more serious problem for proponents of natural property rights than objections to very existence of natural rights? Because proponents of natural property rights all admit to the severity of problem, but none has an answer to it. The most famous recent attempt to formulate a coherent theory of natural property rights was Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. Nozick wrote:
These issues are very complex and are best left to a full treatment of the principle of rectification. In the absence of such a treatment applied to a particular society, one cannot use the analysis and theory presented here to condemn any particular scheme of transfer payments, unless it is clear that no considerations of rectification of injustice could apply to justify it. Although to introduce socialism as the punishment for our sins would be to go to far, past injustices might be so great as to make necessary in the short run a more extensive state in order to rectify them.
Nozick never provided a treatment of the principle of rectification. Neither has any other natural property rights theorist. In my debates with right libertarians, the only response seems to be to shrug at the impossibility of rectification and suggest some sort of arbitrary statute of limitations or to declare some sort of truce and end all violations going forward. Given the socioeconomic status of the vast majority of right libertarians, I feel comfortable calling these the “Let’s quit while I’m ahead” proposals. That they are proposals and not theories is their major flaw. Proposals are negotiation, not argument. Right libertarians want to provide a theoretic moral justification for how property rights arise naturally from past actions. Confronted with the factual impossibility of knowing the past actions necessary to determine proper property rights (or conversely, confronted with the need to, say, return most of the former Confederate states to the Cherokee Nation), they respond with a practical, forward-looking proposal that fails to address the theoretic problem but does conveniently leave them holding their ill-gotten gains.
So even if the have-nots of the world come to accept that certain voluntary actions can create mystical connections between persons and material objects, they still have no reason to treat the current holders of the Earth’s wealth as legitimate. The response of the world’s have-nots to “Let’s quit while I’m ahead” proposals should be, “You hand over your stolen goods first, and then we can discuss the terms of a truce.”