Oct 30 2014

The Cities’ Bridges

Three cities, each some distance from the other, were spread out along one side of a great river. The river was wide and deep, with a powerful and fast current. Lumber was in short supply, and boats were scarce. Crossing the river was dangerous and rarely accomplished. There were legends that across the river lay an undiscovered country, where could be found great wealth and knowledge. Occasionally, someone with an adventurous and seeking spirit would would search out that wealth and knowledge. They would diligently save their resources to be able to build a boat, and then carefully practice their boating skills to be able to make the crossing. When they finally made the crossing and then returned, they spoke of marvelous wonders that could only be understood by going there and experiencing them. Each city had skilled engineers and builders capable of building a bridge, and materials necessary to do so. Intrigued and excited by the stories of the undiscovered country, the people of each city decided to build a bridge from each of their cities to connect itself to the other side.

In the first city, the citizens were concerned with the trivialities of life, such as sporting contests, entertainment, and personal gossip. They could not be bothered with the details of such things as bridge-building. They left these sorts of problems to their leaders to solve, blindly giving them power over such matters. No one monitored the leaders or held them accountable for their actions. Because of this, the evil and corrupt were most attracted to leadership positions. Those few leaders who did not start out corrupt were quickly corrupted by the system—by the lack of accountability and by the influence of already-corrupt leaders who preceded them. The corrupt leaders used their power to benefit themselves and not the people. The leaders discouraged questioning and independent thinking, and when anyone tried to challenge their leadership, the leaders would demonize and ostracize that person to neutralize that person’s potential ability to threaten their power. The leaders cared about money, not about wisdom or knowledge. When the city decided to build a bridge, the leaders craftily drew out the process so they could run up the expenses and divert as much money from the project to themselves and their cronies. Eventually, new corrupt would-be leaders were able to seize power and, seeing that much of the ongoing project expenses would still go to the old leaders’ cronies who had secured the building contracts, they canceled the old bridge project, making excuses about the bridge’s quality and safety, and started a new one they could control. This process repeated yet again. The first city never completed a bridge, having only the eyesore of three incomplete bridges jutting out partially into the river, only half finished. The townspeople found utility in the unfinished bridges—they used them for social gatherings, for picnics, and for fishing, but they never served the purpose for which they were built, and the meager uses to which they were put could not justify the expense of building them.

In the second city, the wealthy and powerful cared about little beyond their own social standing and wealth. There was less personal corruption among the city’s leaders, but they were controlled by the elite citizens, and the leaders managed the city’s affairs to further the interests of the wealthy and powerful. The wealthy and powerful did not like to think of themselves as being only concerned about their own interests, so they pretended to make shows of their concern for the interests of the poor. But really such shows were just status competitions amongst themselves to prove which of them could appear more concerned and charitable. When it came down to a conflict between charity and their own interests, they always supported the city policies that would promote their interests. They discouraged questioning and independent thinking, and when anyone outside of the elite tried to challenge the leadership of the elite, they would demonize and ostracize that person to neutralize that person’s potential ability to threaten their power and position. None of the elite wanted to have a new road to the river and a bridge built near their homes. They were worried about all the extra traffic on the road, the unsavory characters whom it might bring close to their neighborhoods, and that it might ruin their views of the river. They wanted all of the benefits of the bridge without bearing any of its costs. They were concerned with unimportant minutiae of the bridge’s construction and spent years debating unnecessary and irrelevant details of its construction. Eventually the bridge was built, but on the poor side of town. The bridge had taken so long to build that its design had been changed several times over its construction, and it had become saddled with so many unnecessary elements that it was ugly, and not entirely safe. To make sure that the new road and bridge did not facilitate travel for those they deemed undesirable, the elite imposed a toll on anyone crossing the bridge or using the road. Worse still, the wealthy citizens set up a company owned by themselves that would control and operate the road and bridge. They planned to use the profits from the tolls to pay lavish salaries to themselves and toward the upkeep of their own neighborhoods, rather than for the benefit of all townspeople. But the country on the other side used a different kind of currency than the town, and citizens from the other country were unable to pay the tolls to cross the bridge. Being offended at the wealthy townspeople’s unjust attempts to control access to their country and at being spurned by the wealthy townspeople, the citizens of the country on the other side of the river refused to allow contact between their country and the town, and they closed the bridge at their end. As in the first city, the rich townspeople were still able to find utility in the unfinished bridge, using it as a space for social gatherings, for picnics, and for fishing, but the bridge never served its real purpose and the meager uses to which it was put never justified the expense of building it.

In the third city, the poor did not let their leaders or the wealthy take advantage of them and the wealthy and powerful did not seek to abuse their power for their own gain. The residents of each neighborhood met together often, to foster a sense of community. They banded together to assist one another, to fight injustices, and ensure that wrongdoers were held accountable. They sought for unity not just within neighborhoods, but also between them. The townspeople from all walks of life strove to create friendships one with another and to be a unified people. They kept their leaders accountable and they limited how long anyone could remain in power. Because of all this, there was much less difference between income and wealth of the richest and the poorest citizens. When the townspeople decided to build a bridge, they did not delegate its construction to someone else, but each person volunteered his skills and cooperated in his field of expertise to build it. They built the road and bridge through the middle of town, to give everyone equal access, and to unify the town around the bridge. They cared more about the long-term welfare of their community than about petty concerns. All townspeople contributed their time and money to the bridge’s construction, and it was built quickly and efficiently. When it was done, it was beautiful and became the pride of the town. Access to cross the river was given to all townspeople equally, because they had all contributed what they could to its construction. There was free intercourse between the town and the country on the other side. The wealth to be found on the other side was not money, but a great library full of books teaching knowledge and wisdom. Through the greater knowledge and wisdom that they learned, along with their trade with the other country, the town grew prosperous and its people’s lives became more full of joy and meaning.

The townspeople of the first two towns continued in their ignorance and misery, unaware of the wisdom and joy that was possible. Occasionally, a few residents from the first two towns would learn of the third town’s prosperity and try to move there. The third town welcomed with open arms all those who proved they were willing to become one with the townspeople. All those who adopted its language and customs and worked to build, support, and contribute to the community, were welcomed. These things were required of the newcomers because these things had given the community the strength and unity to build its bridge. The newcomers who proved themselves became great pillars and defenders of the community, and they experience and delighted fully in the wisdom and joy to be found there. All others who came to the town and did not adopt the town’s language and customs, and all those who did not work to build, support, and contribute to the community, were cast out, and permanently forbidden from returning to the town. They were cast out because they were seeking to gain all of the benefits of living in the town, but without paying the necessary costs and undertaking the required responsibilities of becoming a townsperson, and allowing such people to remain would destroy what had made the town great.


Apr 14 2011

Do you really have a right to that?

Category: government,law,rightsJames @ 6:07 pm

Do we have a right to receive an education in the same way that we have a right to free speech? Do we have a right to healthcare in the same way that we have a right to own property? We often use the word “right” without thinking much about what the word actually means and without considering what the government is obligated to do about our rights. There are actually two very different conceptions of rights, and these two different conceptions are at the root of many political disagreements in the United States. Unfortunately, because most conservatives or liberals don’t even know that the other side has a different conception of rights, both sides often end up talking past each other in political discussions.

Positive and Negative Rights

Philosophers have created many ways to categorize rights: natural rights vs. legal rights1; claim rights vs. liberty rights2; individual vs. group rights.3 These are all great ways to classify rights, but when it comes to our relationship with government, the most useful category is positive versus negative rights.4

From the point of view of an individual citizen, a positive right is a right to get something from the government. A positive right thus obligates the government to take action. When we talk about having a right to eduction or a right to health care, we are talking about positive rights.

A negative right is a right to be left alone – the right for individuals to act without government interference. A negative right thus obligates the government to not take action. This includes things like the right to free speech, the right to keep and use property, freedom of religion, etc. Most (if not all) of the rights listed in the U.S. Bill of Rights are negative rights.

Like almost any human attempt at classifying and categorizing something, the categories of positive and negative rights are not perfectly black and white. Some people have argued that almost any right can be understood to be either positive or negative, depending on how you approach and define the right. In spite of this criticism, I still think that it is useful and meaningful to distinguish between positive and negative rights. The most recent national debate in the United States where differences between positive and negative rights came up was with healthcare reform.

Is There a Right to Healthcare?

When the U.S. Congress was considering various reforms of the U.S. health care law in 2009 and 2010, many Democrats zealously defended such reforms by arguing that health care was a right, and that the U.S. government was therefore obligated to ensure that everyone had access to health care.5 Puzzled Republicans scratched their heads and wondered why Democrats would use such an obviously flawed argument to defend their proposals, since healthcare was obviously not a right.6 So who was correct? They both were. The two sides didn’t understand each other because Democrats tend to believe in positive rights while Republicans generally do not.

In the debates about the health care bill, people on opposite sides were often talking past each other because they didn’t understand the opposing side’s view about rights. If everyone understood the difference between positive and negative rights would it eliminate political discord in our country? No, but it would at least lead to better-informed debate about the issues. So let’s learn about each side’s justifications for their ideas about rights.

Why do Democrats believe in positive rights?

One of the principal reasons to support the idea of positive rights is a concern about equality. Starting with the Progressive Era,7 during the Great Depression and World War II, and culminating in the Civil Rights movement, many Americans became more aware of inequities in our society such as segregation and wealth disparities. Many people became devoted to achieving greater equality and to the idea that government was the best tool to bring it about.

In 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a Democrat) proposed that the United States adopt a second bill of rights8 to the U.S. Constitution to guarantee individuals’ rights to employment (with a living wage), freedom from unfair competition and monopolies, housing, health care, education, and social security. Roosevelt died a little over a year later, and his second bill of rights was never seriously considered in Congress. But his ideas have held powerful sway over many people ever since.

People who believe in positive rights see recognition of positive rights as a natural progression and outgrowth from the negative rights recognized in the Eighteenth Century in the U.S. Bill of Rights. Starting in the 1970s legal theorists have talked about three generations of human rights corresponding to the ideals of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity.9 The negative rights of the type listed in the Bill of Rights are the first generation (liberty); the second generation are positive rights to things like housing, employment, and healthcare (equality); and the third generation being things like group rights, rights to self determination, and rights to a healthy environment (fraternity). They see the recognition of positive rights as part of the natural progression from feudal medieval societies to modern democracies, the recognition of negative rights in the Bill of Rights was merely one step in that progression, not the end of it.

Why do Republicans reject the idea of positive rights?

Republicans and Libertarians generally reject the idea that people are entitled to positive rights. There are three reasons for this:

First, we live in a world of limited resources. This means that governments may often simply lack the resources to fulfill positive rights. They criticize the notion of positive rights as just being a way for people on the left to dress up their political goals using “rights” language in order to make their political goals seem more legitimate.

Second, the notion of a positive right creates a corresponding obligation for others to fulfill it. In other words, if I have right to housing, then that means that everyone else in society has an obligation to build me a house. Critics of positive rights argue that the only way for governments to guarantee people’s positive rights is to illegitimately force other people to act against their will to fulfill those purported rights. What if you don’t want to build a house for someone else? For the government to fulfill a person’s right to housing, it will need to take some of your property from you to pay for that other person’s house.10 Critics thus argue that positive rights lead to the erosion of negative rights and lead to an ever-larger government which must infringe individuals’ negative rights with greater and greater regularity. French philosopher Frederic Bastiat summarized this argument:

People not only want the law to be just; they also want it to be philanthropic. They are not satisfied that justice should guarantee to each citizen the free and inoffensive exercise of his faculties for his physical, intellectual, and moral development; they require of it that it should directly spread welfare, education, and morality throughout the country. This is the seductive aspect of socialism.

But, I repeat, these two functions of the law contradict each other. We must choose between them. A citizen cannot at the same time be free and not free. M. de Lamartine wrote me one day: “Your doctrine is only the half of my program; you have stopped at liberty; I go on to fraternity.” I answered him: “The second half of your program will destroy the first half.” And, in fact, it is quite impossible for me to separate the word “fraternity” from the word “voluntary.” It is quite impossible for me to conceive of fraternity as legally enforced, without liberty being legally destroyed, and justice being legally trampled underfoot.1112

Third, American conservatives also tend to be originalist13 in their views toward constitutional interpretation (IE they believe that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted according to its meaning as originally understood at the time of its ratification). Originalists point to the text of the Bill of Rights and most other constitutional amendments dealing with rights which seem to only recognize negative rights. Many conservatives thus also reject the notion of positive rights as being antithetical to the American constitutional system.

Conclusion

You might be wondering where I stand on the positive rights debate. I’m not sure I agree with either side. I have real trouble accepting the idea that someone can have positive rights which entitle them to infringe other people’s individual rights. My tentative conclusion is that there are not positive rights, but that there are “positive obligations,” meaning that even though the poor shouldn’t have a legal right to take my property from me, I am morally obligated to freely use my property to help the poor.

Now that you’ve finished reading this, there are two things you should do: First, think about what conception of rights makes most sense to you and about how you should apply that conception to your political beliefs. Second, whenever you hear people disagreeing about politics (or, heaven forbid, you get in a political disagreement yourself), think about how these conceptions about rights influence each side’s argument, and try to have some more empathy for both side’s views.

Also, like I said at the beginning of this, there are other ways to approach the question of what is a right. I invite you to read and think about these other ways too (I included footnotes to the Wikipedia articles about each of those different approaches, and the Wikipedia articles have footnotes to other good sources to get you started).

 

 

Footnotes

1https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Natural_and_legal_rights

5Like this Washington Post op-ed praising the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as “enshrine[ing] the principle that all Americans have the right to health care — an extraordinary achievement that will make this a better nation.”

6For example, in his 2010 speech at CPAC, Glen Beck said “[w]e don’t have a right to health care, housing or handouts.”

10See, for example, this editorial criticizing the notion that healthcare is a right:

That people think they have a “right” to health care just goes to show how little people think at all. “Rights” only make sense when they can be applied universally, without causing a “wrong” to someone else. You can have a right to own property, for example, because everyone can enjoy the right under the same terms and conditions. You can have a right to say what you like too…as long as everyone can say what he likes. But if you have the right to a cat scan, someone must have an obligation to make the machine…to put it in service…to run it…to maintain it…to offer it to you…and to interpret the results, etc. Who is this poor slave who has been shackled to your service?

12Economist F. A. Hayek also argued along these same lines:

Question: Well, then, why isn’t there any such thing as social justice?

Hayek: Because justice refers to rules of individual conduct. And no rules of the conduct of individuals can have the effect that the good things of life are distributed in a particular manner. No state of affairs as such is just or unjust: it is only when we assume that somebody is responsible for having brought it about. . . .

In the same sense, a spontaneously working market, where prices act as guides to action, cannot take account of what people in any sense need or deserve, because it creates a distribution which nobody has designed, and something which has not been designed, a mere state of affairs as such, cannot be just or unjust. And the idea that things ought to be designed in a ‘just’ manner means, in effect, that we must abandon the market and turn to a planned economy in which somebody decides how much each ought to have, and that means, of course, that we can only have it at the price of the complete abolition of personal liberty.