The nature of rights, and of wishes

posted at 10:45 am on March 13, 2010 by Ed Morrissey

I’ve written on the nature of rights in the past, most recently in the ridiculous context of whether Internet access is a “fundamental human right.” When Walter Williams helps to underscore a point I’ve made, though, I have no problem revisiting the discussion.  The eminent George Mason University scholar wrote a brief but powerful argument against the assignment of “rights” to what should be called “wishes,” or perhaps more elegantly, “aspirations” for our fellow human beings:

True rights, such as those in our Constitution, or those considered to be natural or human rights, exist simultaneously among people. That means exercise of a right by one person does not diminish those held by another. In other words, my rights to speech or travel impose no obligations on another except those of non-interference. If we apply ideas behind rights to health care to my rights to speech or travel, my free speech rights would require government-imposed obligations on others to provide me with an auditorium, television studio or radio station. My right to travel freely would require government-imposed obligations on others to provide me with airfare and hotel accommodations.

For Congress to guarantee a right to health care, or any other good or service, whether a person can afford it or not, it must diminish someone else’s rights, namely their rights to their earnings. The reason is that Congress has no resources of its very own. Moreover, there is no Santa Claus, Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy giving them those resources. The fact that government has no resources of its very own forces one to recognize that in order for government to give one American citizen a dollar, it must first, through intimidation, threats and coercion, confiscate that dollar from some other American. If one person has a right to something he did not earn, of necessity it requires that another person not have a right to something that he did earn.

To argue that people have a right that imposes obligations on another is an absurd concept. A better term for new-fangled rights to health care, decent housing and food is wishes. If we called them wishes, I would be in agreement with most other Americans for I, too, wish that everyone had adequate health care, decent housing and nutritious meals. However, if we called them human wishes, instead of human rights, there would be confusion and cognitive dissonance. The average American would cringe at the thought of government punishing one person because he refused to be pressed into making someone else’s wish come true.

None of my argument is to argue against charity. Reaching into one’s own pockets to assist his fellow man in need is praiseworthy and laudable. Reaching into someone else’s pockets to do so is despicable and deserves condemnation.

The simultaneous existence point is essential to understanding rights, and why innate rights do not require confiscation.  Essentially, the acknowledgement of innate natural rights treats each individual as an equal.  No one has more of a right than another to the freedom of worship, of thought, of speech, or of property.  To treat health care as a ‘right’ means that one individual’s right has precedence over another’s.  That requires, eventually, the use of force to resolve.  It’s the antithesis of both equality and freedom.  That is why the founders’ original conception of rights and liberty didn’t include aspirations like health care, food, shelter, or equal wealth, but only of those rights innate to each individual, bordered at the individual instead of the community.

If one believes that each human being has a “right” to health care, the Internet, or pasta primavera (without salt), then eventually one has to confiscate all of these from the people that provide them.  After all, not everyone has the cash for saltless pasta primavera.  It falls to government to redistribute the pasta primavera wealth by first engaging in some form of confiscation, of either cash to buy it or the pasta primavera itself.  That devalues the property and choice rights of some to the desires of the many.

As a society, we should aspire to making ourselves successful enough that all of us can afford to buy the essentials of life, including the occasional pasta primavera. But no one has a right to the goods or services of another, and those political-economic systems that have made that assumption have proven themselves over the last century to be the antithesis of both liberty and prosperity.  (via QandO)

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Aquateen Hungerforce on March 13, 2010 at 3:12 PM


baldilocks on March 13, 2010 at 3:35 PM

You have always had the right of free speech but that does not mean you get free pen & paper or free newspaper delivery.

I agree. My comments state that agreement.

If a black person opens a hotel he should have no more requirement to serve whites than a gymnastics studio be required to have wheel chair accessible parallel bars.

TheSitRep on March 13, 2010 at 1:00 PM

I disagree. See again Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States. The Commerce clause cuts both ways.

unclesmrgol on March 13, 2010 at 3:37 PM

The example of Williams’ right to travel is bogus as well as a right to internet. You don’t think these things through much do you?

cartooner on March 13, 2010 at 1:28 PM

I suggest you carefully read Williams’ article:

That means exercise of a right by one person does not diminish those held by another. In other words, my rights to speech or travel impose no obligations on another except those of non-interference.

After you have carefully read Williams’ assertion, in the context of Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, then we can talk.

unclesmrgol on March 13, 2010 at 3:40 PM

I don’t think liberals as a group, believe in charity, they believe in government and as believers in government, they believe taxes replace charity so they see no need to give any of their own wealth…they have access to everyone else’s.

JIMV on March 13, 2010 at 4:12 PM

I’m saying that the absolutist logic of all taxes = slavery is faulty.

ernesto on March 13, 2010 at 2:08 PM

In some countries (Nigeria being the best example) some of the military budget is paid by oil companies like Chevron. Are those soldiers also “slaves”?

Del Dolemonte on March 13, 2010 at 4:37 PM

baldilocks on March 13, 2010 at 3:35 PM


My point is that there is no right which, exercised to its logical conclusion, will not produce interference.
unclesmrgol on March 13, 2010 at 3:33 PM

None of what you have written has given any weight to this assertion. Unless I am misunderstanding what you are saying here, I can only scratch my head. Rights, as discussed here and by Walt, are explicitly those things which do not produce interference.

Aquateen Hungerforce on March 13, 2010 at 4:45 PM

“Hence, by Jefferson’s argumentation, what the Phelps’ are doing is a natural right.” — unclesmrgol

Exactly so. That’s why they’re not in jail. What’s your point?

“It is obvious, however, that Dr. Williams’ right to travel without interference certainly interferes with the rights of racist property owners of public accommodation.” –unclesmrgol

Not necessarily, if he was never planning to stay there anyway. You are getting bogged down in the particulars. Williams is saying the essence of a negative liberty is that it doesn’t require the agency or involvement of another party to exercise it. Think of it this way. Let’s say you are on another planet, just like Earth, and you are all alone. Let’s say you assert that you have the right to walk whithersoever you choose. Now walk in any direction. Did that require the agency of anyone else to exercise that right? No. How much did it cost? Nothing. Same with “free speech.” Now you assert that you have the right to a BMW 5 Series sedan. Is that going to require someone else’s agency? Yes. How much will it cost? Billions. That’s basically what he’s talking about and you know it. He could have been more clear about it, perhaps, but you are willfully misunderstanding him.

shazbat on March 13, 2010 at 4:56 PM

BTW, yes, these thought experiments about “rights” do work best on another planet because real life is messy, but the abstract differences between negative liberties and positive entitlements has real world implications that are entirely predictable from the thought experiment.

shazbat on March 13, 2010 at 5:07 PM

– Judge Learned Hand

uknowmorethanme on March 13, 2010 at 12:00 PM

“I knew you’d say that.”
– Judge Joseph Dredd :)

Lanceman on March 13, 2010 at 5:15 PM

I remember Dr. Walter Williams guest-hosting Limbaugh’s show a while back and Dr. Williams had Dr. Thomas Sowell as a guest. Economic conservative nirvana.

pugwriter on March 13, 2010 at 5:33 PM

[Thanks for the props, ernesto]

Aquateen Hungerforce:
I don’t see my own points as inconsistent in any major way with yours.

I would say that the reason there’s no contradiction in favoring one confiscatory tax over another one, is because government has two basic jobs: securing (which I do not confuse with granting) our individual liberty and, in fact, fulfilling our collective wishes. I have yet to hear anyone argue that I have an unalienable right to domestic tranquility, but our Constitution explicitly sets out to provide it. So too, the Constitution’s stated purpose of promoting the general welfare lands on the controversially ill-defined wish list side of the equation.

When government confiscates my money to build roads used disproportionately by interstate trucking companies and rural citizens like me, I am effectively subsidizing the delivery and availability of foodstuffs (often exotic!) and goods I’ll never see, need or want, to urban centers in which other folks wish to live. That’s money I could otherwise have spent on fertilizer for my vegetable garden. One could certainly suggest that I benefit indirectly in other ways, but that’s not a rights based argument, it’s basically the same indirect benefit argument that providing for a healthy society is based on.

While the distinction between wishes and rights is certainly well worth making, especially given the misleading contemporary conflation of the two, it doesn’t seem nearly as dispositive to me in matters of taxation as it is might be elsewhere. Mr. Williams relies on a presumptive right to property in the face of coercive confiscation to make his argument, a notion which is notably, frustratingly — and deliberately — absent from the Declaration and is treated as an issue of “just compensation” in the Bill of Rights. The matter of what constitutes such compensation (e.g. direct or indirect), in contrast to unalienable rights, is far from self-evident.

When it comes to taxation, we are really talking about distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate wishes in the context of powers we have already granted government to impose the common will. It seems to me that Mr. Williams’ discussion is helpful, but insufficient to that task.

JM Hanes on March 13, 2010 at 5:56 PM

None of what you have written has given any weight to this assertion. Unless I am misunderstanding what you are saying here, I can only scratch my head. Rights, as discussed here and by Walt, are explicitly those things which do not produce interference.

Aquateen Hungerforce on March 13, 2010 at 4:45 PM

He specifically mentions travel and speech. These are both rights which have produced contention in court. Saying that a valid right does not produce contention is a fallacy. I point out here that a “right” to healthcare produces all sorts of contention — that is a point upon which we can agree.

Name me a right, and I will name you a point of contention relating to that right. Care to dare?

unclesmrgol on March 13, 2010 at 6:34 PM

I would come at unclesmrgol’s point from a slightly different direction.

Offhand, I can’t recall a right to “travel,” btw, but in any case, I think it fits uneasily into Mr. Williams apparent thesis. He would not, I expect, assert an unalienable right to traverse someone’s private property, nor argue that prohibitions against trespassing would constitute an unconstitutional prior restraint. His right to travel is not individually self-contained, nor unconditional till proven otherwise, as the right to free speech is legally presumed to be.

In fact, even Mr. Williams’ ability to move from Maine to Florida as he pleases is, itself, conditional on state seizure of private property and/or easements to provide the pathways he must travel to get there. A system of private roads, of variable quality, direction and tolls, to which individuals might, or might not, be granted access, would make short work of Williams’ abstract freedom of movement.

There exists a philosophical libertarian utopia which may be seductive, but which I doubt few of us would actually want to live in. Unconditional individual rights which do not impinge in any way on others can, in fact, be subsumed in a single, negative imperative: the right not to be infringed upon. Even if that right ought to be inviolable, in practice, it never is. In and of itself, it is also an insufficient basis for the ordering of the very society needed to secure such liberty from others. In that sense, the idea of unalienable rights is also aspirational — which in no way minimizes its importance as the guiding principle of good governance.

Alas, our lives are lived on slippery slopes, whether we acknowledge it or not. While Mr. Williams’ reductionist argument makes perfect sense to those applauding it, it’s been made time and again without persuasive effect on those whom he consigns to the ranks of wishful thinkers. The idea that its righteousness is, or should be self-evident is a kind a wishful thinking in its own right. We have only postulated models of what the society he presumably envisions would look like. The impulse to charitable works, whether misdirected or not, could be called a force of nature itself. Those who hope to change its current trajectory are desperately in need of more innovative, positive, talking points, and more powerful cautionary tales.

JM Hanes on March 13, 2010 at 8:39 PM

While the Declaration declares that all rights and liberty are born within us, the Constitution then gives the voice of the People as to what we agree upon to do. The Preamble is a unique introduction to a social compact that clearly puts forward that we, as a people, will do certain things. That is our responsibility as individuals to achieve these things in our lives.

From the Preamble comes one way this may be done: via a government. Do note that having a government does not obsolve the people of doing the things they have stated they agree to do. Quite the contrary as government is limited, restricted and must be kept so as it is the Punisher and holder of our negative rights and liberties used to protect society. It cannot achieve the goals of society in full, but only in part and only in small part.

From that we give government very few things to do with our negative liberties so as to protect us, and we call out those things that we agree to let government have from our negative liberties and agree not to do those things on our own.

This structure is followed throughout the entire Constitution and is recursive.

First comes responsibilities, and each branch of government gets those. These are the things we expect government to achieve.

Second comes lawful means and methods, those things we agree upon that are the ways that government can achieve those responsibilities.

Third comes the rights we attach to them so as to allow government to utilize our few liberties and rights that we lend to government so that it may properly administer them through pre-defined means to pre-existing responsibilities handed to it.

What is done in large is done in small, and the pattern is striking and direct.

As we are responsible for all things handed to governmen to do and have more power than any government we instantiate, we recognize that the limited means given do not create a final instance. So, too, government with its sub-set of responsibilities is held accountable to them and it must abide to them given the restrictive means we allow it. Government is not absolved of its failures just as the people are not absolved of the failures of government or themselves.

What we do not hand to government is our positive rights as these are the things we have to build society. We can use any and all lawful means to achieve our common ends and those ends, as stated, are never final. We cannot, not ever, reach a perfect Union with our fellow citizens, but we must recognize that we can strive to a more perfect Union which leaves much undone. Government is a tool, not a cornucopia, and when we mistake it for the latter the lash and chains we give it to restrict those that harm society with their negative liberties is then imposed upon the people’s positive liberties. When government feels it can do it all, and invert the order of rights and liberties, then the people are enslaved.

How often we forget that there are negative rights and liberties, and that we place them in trust so that we may all see to them and that they are not abused. Paine well called government Punisher as those are the tools we hand it as those are too dangerous wielded by all of us as such would destroy society. Thus government is an organ of society, a society we create. We create government with our rights and liberties… government does not create society to create individuals to hand them rights and liberties. And we always reserve the positive right and liberty of self-defense, defense of family, defense of property which is an expression of our liberty, and to defend society from tyranny to ourselves as individuals. That makes one a citizen.

Not a subject of government.

Not an object of government to care about.

But a citizen who is one of the member of society that creates the sovereign power we call Nation. We create the Law of Nations, not government.

ajacksonian on March 13, 2010 at 8:43 PM

PS, ernesto, the U.S. “standing army” is also funded by taxes on corporations, not just taxes on individuals like me.

These corporations have something called “stockholders”, who voluntarily buy a share of the company. They are not forced by law to buy stock, but do so of their own free will.

Are they “slaves” as well?

Del Dolemonte on March 13, 2010 at 8:47 PM

I suggest that Mr. Williams’ example of the right to travel is not refuted by all the arguments here but those refutations are merely obstacles along the way. A man is not denied the right of getting from Point A to Point B by being denied a room in hotel owned by a ‘racist’ or someone who reserves his right to accommodate whomever he pleases, it is only made a little more difficult.

The man still has the right to travel.Same thing goes with the example of roads. If the roads were not there, travel would take longer but the the right to travel still exists.

Sporty1946 on March 13, 2010 at 9:41 PM


If the government does not take ownership or right of way across properties for pathways, your right to travel will extend precisely as far as compacts and easements with your neighbors allow.

JM Hanes on March 13, 2010 at 9:55 PM

Brilliant guy. Loved him for over 20 years.

Sapwolf on March 13, 2010 at 10:38 PM

JM Hanes,

That is true to an extent. That is why we decided to allow the government to act on behalf of everyone to take limited amounts of property and fairly compensate the person for that property.

When Mr. Williams says “In other words, my rights to speech or travel impose no obligations on another except those of non-interference.”, he is stating that the right to travel from here to there does not infringe on someone else’s rights and does not require anyone else to do anything except to not interfere.

Sporty1946 on March 13, 2010 at 11:00 PM

Why are taxes collected for welfare described with terms like coercive, but not taxes collected for defense?

ernesto on March 13, 2010 at 11:54 AM

It can be demonstrated that welfare does not benefit everybody. It especially has no benefit from those whose property was seized and in fact is detrimental. That represents a net loss for its contributors.

It can also be demonstrated that defense of one’s property is beneficial. On a national scale, each and all citizens share the same benefit. That is the protection of property of said individuals. A net gain for all.

anuts on March 14, 2010 at 12:07 AM

Aquateen Hungerforce on March 13, 2010 at 3:12 PM


Absolutely! The Constitution and Bill of Rights are LIMITING documents. They declare what our rights are and LIMIT the federal governments power over those inalienable rights.

csdeven on March 14, 2010 at 8:04 AM

If the government does not take ownership or right of way across properties for pathways, your right to travel will extend precisely as far as compacts and easements with your neighbors allow.
JM Hanes on March 13, 2010 at 9:55 PM

You are confusing the right to travel with the ability to travel. The government can’t stop me from leaving my house and moving about the country. It may become difficult to do in some areas where private property blocks access or whatever. And the Constitution gives some tools to the government to solve those types of access issues. Your argument only describes how difficult excersizing the right to travel may be, not that it negates it.

oddjob1138 on March 14, 2010 at 2:06 PM

Reaching into someone else’s pockets to do so is despicable and deserves condemnation jail time.

Fixed it.

MarkTheGreat on March 15, 2010 at 8:18 AM

I just wish that a basic understanding of not only the Constitution, but of Economics 101 was a requirement for election To Congress, or a government job.

AW1 Tim on March 13, 2010 at 11:02 AM

That won’t prevent the criminals from lying to the masses.

Understanding of economics and the constitution need to be a requirement for voting.

MarkTheGreat on March 15, 2010 at 8:21 AM

(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Which means that none of them are rights, because they can all be abrogated if the UN wants.

MarkTheGreat on March 15, 2010 at 8:22 AM

Education: It is not a right when the government punishes someone for not sending their kids to school. It becomes a compulsion and that is the opposite of liberty.

Pelayo on March 13, 2010 at 11:31 AM

If you decide to have children, then you assume the responsibility for treating them properly. This includes preparing them for life after they grow up.

MarkTheGreat on March 15, 2010 at 8:26 AM

The things you speak of were addressed by the Founders. The reason they were addressed is precisely because it is necessary for the greater good of the Nation while insuring the protection of the Rights of the people. As evidence, I give you the U.S. Constitution.

uknowmorethanme on March 13, 2010 at 12:04 PM

Arguments can be made that Defense and the criminal justice system are legitimate govt expenses because of the benefit of them cannot be limited to just the people paying for them. When the defense dept prevents someone from invading, they have protected everyone in the country, regardless of whether the people protected paid for the defense dept. Because of this, many people will be tempted to not pay for defense, and let everyone else bear the burden. Pretty soon, nobody is paying and there is no defense.

MarkTheGreat on March 15, 2010 at 8:33 AM

ernesto’s trying to argue that if taxing for defense is ok, then taxing for anything is ok. Don’t fall into it’s trap.

MarkTheGreat on March 15, 2010 at 8:36 AM

The argument that something has to be ‘confiscated’ does not stand up to even modest scrutiny.

lexhamfox on March 13, 2010 at 2:36 PM

Nice attempt to dodge through the use of blatant lies.
You are trying to argue that since the doctor’s aren’t forced to work for free, there is no confiscation going on.

MarkTheGreat on March 15, 2010 at 8:41 AM