I have a right to work, don’t I? So what’s all the fuss about? Do they have to “grant” me the right to work? What’s up with that?
Answering this question requires defining what a “right” is. Google defines this as “that which is morally correct, just, or honorable”, and also “a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way.” Note how smoothly they put “moral” and “legal” in the same breath without even blinking.
The Legal Dictionary defines a right “in an abstract sense: justice, ethical correctness, or harmony with the rules of law or the principles of morals. In a concrete legal sense: a power, privilege, demand, or claim possessed by a particular person by virtue of law.” Here they’re actually using the alternative “or” – either rules of law OR principles of morals – in their “abstract” definition. And they make no bones about what a right is supposed to be in the “concrete” legal sense.
Here’s how the Free Republic site deals with this question. It defines a “right” as having “the sovereignty to act without the permission of others […] A right is universal, i.e. it applies to all men, not just to a few.” They go on to state “a right must be exercised through your own initiative and action. It is not a claim on others.” Note that the above libertarian approach focuses on “natural rights”, while the Legal Dictionary definition focuses on “civil rights.”
The Google definition seems to further muddy the waters a bit, trying to have the cake and eat it, it would seem. In other words, the Google and Legal Dictionary definition, to paraphrase Professor Walter E. Williams, sounds more like a “wish” than a “right.” In Williams’ view, we have a right to free speech, for example, because it doesn’t impose an obligation on anyone – other than non-interference. In other words, if your right infringes on the right of another person – then that’s not “a right.” In fact, it’s violence! To have a “right” to free healthcare, for instance, means that someone else must give up their right to a portion of the fruits of their labor, because the person with the “right” sure as heck isn’t going to pay for it.
- One has a right to free speech or to the pursuit of happiness, because your free speech or your pursuit of happiness doesn’t interfere with mine (when it does, then you’re violating my right and are thus in the wrong). To better understand this distinction, we need to consider the concept known as a “positive right”. This includes things like the “right to privacy”, as well as such concepts as the “right to food”, the “right not to be murdered”, and so on. They’re termed as “positive rights” because they’re not really “rights”, but rather aspects of wealth – or property. So NSA snooping, for example, is not a crime because your “right to privacy” is being invaded – you have no “right to privacy” as such – but rather because it’s a violation of your property right! Your right to your body (your property) including every thought that’s within it. Thus NSA snooping is doubly a violation of your natural rights because it is also an act of aggression avainst you (try to object to this and see how long before you’re forcibly restrained).
- So, does this mean than we do not have the “right” to, say, food or housing or healthcare? Sure we do – if we earned it. You can do with the fruits of your labor whatever you want to or need to, including feeding, housing and healing yourself – and others, if you so choose. Think about it like this: if you truly had a “right” to food, you could just walk in to your neighborhood WalMart and stuff yourself silly without paying a nickel. You would, wouldn’t you? If you truly had a right to healthcare, you could simply show up on the doorstep of your neighborhood GP and demand that he treat you. Or you could walk into a pharmacy and pick up whatever you need without bothering to pay. But clearly, this exercise of your “right” would violate the rights of all other people who didn’t agree to this, and hence it is not a “right” after all!
- According to Rothbard, “human rights” are “property rights”. Positive rights, in that view, are therefore not “rights” at all but rather camouflaged grants of new powers to the government who will now take it upon itself to enforce those “rights” by force. Stephan Kinsella also points out that so-called “negative rights” (such as, for instance, the right to free speech) are not independent rights at all, but rather form part of a subset of natural rights – being merely a part of the right to one’s body. He also points out that constitutional or “civil” rights such as the right to due process or the right against double jeopardy, function as limits on the state and are directly covered by the fundamental rights to one’s property and the right to be be free from violence and coercion. So, next time you decide to support someone’s “right to work”, you’re not really saying that “everyone has the right to work” as most of us would agree – in lay terms. In current legal terms you are instead saying that he can demand a job and must get it. And the state will help him enforce it! And the job-giver may, in the final count, turn out to be… you.
The word “Right” as it is now widely understood, practically implies a god-given entitlement – at your cost. But, as natural-rights libertarians would put it, a “natural right” is the fundamental right to individual sovereignty which views initiation of force or fraud as rights violations. Interestingly, the vast majority of people – be they on the Left or Right of the political spectrum – naturally gravitate towards this libertarian position, only to quickly shy away from it, once they’ve considered the prevailing legal and ideological ramifications.
Like two people who are unconsciously drawn together, and then jerk back when they suddenly realize how their intimacy might be seen. This reaction is often explained away by the perceived over-simplification of the complex nature of human rights as well as by the currently-fashionable sweeping of natural rights under the carpet of legal rights. It’s also the deeply ingrained, if irrational, sense that law should be complicated – and state-controlled.
Finally, opponents of natural rights do so because of the inherent free market position that natural rights demand. The alarm bells of those with a “statist” mindset are set off at the very mention of “free market” which they perceive as evil, contrary to all ideologically-inconsistent evidence. And if the evil free market is linked so intimately to natural rights, then natural rights must not be rights – as illogical as this conclusion actually is.
This paradoxical conclusion is reached by a flawed and incomplete logical evaluation of the current political, economic, social and legal systems and how they affect our rights and lives. The sheer number of variables overwhelms the ordinary person, who then passes the buck: let the experts deal with it. This buck-passing is intimately tied into another attitude – if we pass the buck to someone else, this means that we inherently trust them and the institution they represent. So whether we passed that responsibility on because of our laziness or because of our lack of insight and understanding – or because of fear – the logical final outcome for us personally is that we therefore MUST support the state and its current status quo.
To put this in a different way: we tend to give up our essential natural rights not because we don’t agree with them, deep down, but because of our own self-defeating intellectual inertia which we then proceed to further rationalize by embracing flawed political paradigms which we would otherwise instantly reject – if we actually had our natural rights protected! Regardless of how we act as individuals – whether we spread awareness of the true legitimacy of natural rights, or whether we discard them on misunderstood and unrevised ideological grounds – one thing is for certain: our lives and the lives of our children will be shaped by our present attitudes. If we choose to ignore our natural rights, we are guaranteeing enslavement to ourselves and to our future generations.
Long story short, then – we do NOT have the “right” to work!
- Google’s definition
- Legal Dictionary definition
- Free Republic definition
- Professor Williams approach
- Right to privacy
- Rothbard on rights
- Negative rights