Saturday, February 21, 2015

For Your Own Good -- The Problem with Subjective Rights

My mother made an interesting observation today1. She had been watching a program about those parents who refused vaccination for their children and mentioned that the same people who did not care if their anti-vaccination stand caused disease in other people were also the same people who demanded others not smoke. And she is, in many cases, quite right. Not only that, they are also the same people who demand others be denied the opportunity to eat transfats and other "bad" foods.

Leaving aside the dubious science behind all three positions2, there are still some absurd inconsistencies in these ranges of belief. I suppose one could argue that there is some consistency in the second hand smoking position and the antivaccination one -- at least from the perspective of the antivaccination believer -- as in both cases they are trying to prevent themselves from being exposed to harm. On the other hand, it is somewhat inconsistent in that they accept that their lack of vaccination may increase the risks of others, yet they object to the same risk from second hand smoke. But, ignoring that, there is absolutely no sense to those who claim to have the right to choose not to vaccinate, yet insist that others must not eat certain foods for their own good. Not that they are alone in their inconsistent demands for a mix of liberty and authoritarianism, it is an almost universal feature of modern political thought, left and right. Granted, the amount of each varies from person to person, but it does seem very few people at present hold to a consistent belief in either freedom or control.

Why so many embrace such confused beliefs can be explained in many ways, as is the case with most philosophies, but -- as I have argued a few times in the past3 -- this specific confusion, insisting that some practices enjoy protection while others do not, seems to stem for the most part from a belief in the subjective nature of rights4, or, to be more specific, a belief that rights --or the powers of the state -- cannot be defined with absolute precision, and are instead based upon some sort of collective agreement5.

The problem with such a definition of "rights" -- or even of what constitutes legitimate government action -- should be obvious. A government which is limited by strict and well defined rules leaves little room for conflict and confusion, we may debate what specific cases fall under the rules, but, for the most part, it is pretty clear what is and is not allowed. On the other hand, once allowable government action becomes open to majority rule, arguments from tradition, or so on, there is no way to predict what may or may not be disallowed tomorrow, much less in a week or year. Something we do today in good faith could suddenly become a crime, and a perfectly law abiding citizen transformed into a criminal in a moment6.

Nor is that all. The ability to define rights on the fly, or to create new areas of government actions on a whim, means that the state ceases to be a framework for collective coexistence and cooperation, and instead becomes an arena for never ending power politics7, as each individual seeks to prevent others from doing him harm, while simultaneously seeking to manipulate the law into the shape most advantageous to himself8.

More damaging still is that the belief itself, far from being "realistic" or "practical"9 is in truth a terribly destructive point of view. After all, if there is no right or wrong, if there is no concrete definition of what the state should and should not do, then how can one object to anything the state does? Except for claiming it goes against one's interests, what objection can there be to any given law if one believes laws are nothing more than majority rule? Or tradition? Unless we embrace some sort of external rule, some means of defining what the state should and should not do, there is really no ground for objecting to the current course of politics and the only effective argument becomes "we are more than you", leading to nothing but the continual back and forth of patronage and power politics.

No, worse than that. Saying "patronage" does not make the point clear enough. The problem is, with nothing to stop the state from expanding its power ad libitum10, and with the exercise of that power effectively arbitrary, there is little for one to do but to attempt to grab as much of that power as possible, if not for his own benefit, then as a protective measure, lest it be used to his detriment. Once the state has grown to a certain size, there simply ceases to be anything one could describe as apolitical, the state is in all things, and all things are of the state. And thus, one must either wield that power, or be at the mercy of those who do. And so, in the end, as I argued in several works11, the state becomes nothing but the war of all against all.


1. For those unfamiliar with my many tales of my mother, she is quite far to the left, but has an odd libertarian streak when it comes to certain issues, such as health Nazi measures.

2. To be clear, I am not saying that "second hand smoke" is completely safe. Those who have breathing issues clearly can suffer from tobacco smoke the same as from any other smoke. And, as with any smoke, there are suspended particles, carbon monoxide and other substances that may have some small deleterious effect. On the other hand, the claims that second hand smoke is more dangerous than smoking is simply ludicrous. I won't go into the entire argument here, but will simply point out how absurd some conclusions are based on anti-smoking hysteria. For example, the open air stadium in Baltimore, surrounded by elevated highways on two sides, down wind from a garbage incinerator (and not all that far from steel mills and chemical plants), which decided that smoking was too great a risk to allow.

3. See "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government", "Negative and Positive Rights" and "Power and Disorder".

4. It is tempting to argue it is simply a selfish interest in forcing one's will upon others ("The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism"), but, in truth, most people want to believe they hold a benevolent, consistent philosophy, and thus, even when doing little more than turning their prejudices into laws, they still seek a way to justify it. (See "The Nature of Evil", "Three Versions of Evil and the Confusion They Cause", "Misguided, Deceptive or Evil?", "Tyranny Without Tyrants", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "Government by Emotion".)

5. Some manage to split their beliefs, arguing that there are certain definite rights, such as those in the bill of rights, but that then there are additional rights, or perhaps not rights, but some other sort of legitimate basis for government action, which is established by majority will, or convention, or tradition, or some other source, which provides much less well defined, but no less valid, guidelines for the exercise of force by the state. (See "In Loco Parentis", "Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "Harming Society".)

6. One need only think of the many accounting firms which, in the aftermath of Enron, were suddenly told their previously legitimate practices were in fact wrong, and were subjected to fines, and often public abuse at the hands of politicians and pundits, based on little more than having followed the law in a way that later fell into disfavor.

7 See "The War of All Against All".

8. What is most interesting about this is that those who think they gain advantage from state favors often gain less than they would under a truly free market. They may, in terms of market share, enjoy a considerable gain, but when we take into account the harm that intervention does to the market, most often the net effect is loss rather than gain. And, most certainly, the market as a whole suffers as do most individuals, even if a handful of enterprises may enjoy a small gain. (See "Anti-Business Businesses", "The Irrationality of Government Redistribution", "Patronage", "Patronage Versus Choice".)

9. Of course, I have been more than a little critical of pragmatism as a philosophy. (In the everyday sense of pragmatism, not the formal philosophy of the same name.) See "The Lunacy of 'Common Sense'", "'Seems About Right', Another Lesson in Common Sense and Its Futility", "A Look at Common Sense", "Res Ipsa Loquitur", "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "Pragmatism Revisited", "Pragmatism Revisited, Again", "The Plural of Anecdote is Not Data", "Rules of Grammar and Pragmatism", "The Problem of the Small Picture", "Keyhole Thinking", "Impractical Pragmatists", "In Defense of Zero Tolerance, or, An Examination of Law, Common Sense and Consistency", "No Dividing Line", "The Consequences of Bad Laws", "Questions of Law and Questions of Fact", "The Rarity of 'Common Sense'" and "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship".

10. Again, spell check does not recognize an actual word. Though this time I am complaining about Google spell check, not Firefox. On the other hand, when I checked to make sure I had the spelling correct, I was surprised to find wikipedia missed the meaning I am using here. it defined the meaning in music, and the shortened version "ad lib", but forgot it also mean "at will" or "at one's pleasure", which is quite different from the other meanings they provided. I know some of my usages are archaic, but in this case, I am certain I am not using it in an idiosyncratic way, Wikipedia is simply overlooking another usage.

11. See "The Road to Violence", "Power and Disorder", "Chaotic Government", "Government Funding and the Creation of Strife", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "How the Government Corrupts Relationships" and "The War of All Against All".

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