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Rights and nonsense

Libertarians differ about many things and one such area is whether so-called ‘natural rights’ exist or whether, to borrow the phrase of 18th century utilitarian thinker Jeremy Bentham, they are so much “nonsense on stilts”. Just to be clear from the start, I think natural rights, where they spring from an understanding of human beings as creatures possessed of free will, who need freedom from coercion to thrive, make some sense. However, given the difficulties involved, natural rights for me must be strictly and narrowly applied otherwise the idea rapidly disintegrates.

Over the past 100 years or so, the natural rights doctrine has been progressively (sic) hijacked by collectivists of various stripes who have turned what is essentially a set of prohibitions against the initiation of force against persons and property into a series of claims, which require the use of extensive coercion for such ‘rights’ to be realised. As an example of how this use of ‘rights’ degrades an originally-useful concept, step forward the assemblage of clowns, brutes and hangers-on at the current Earth Summit in South Africa.

It ought to be obvious, but sadly is not, that providing something like the ‘right’ to healthcare begs the question of whether some person or persons have a corresponding duty to become doctors, nurses or hospital staff; does a ‘right’ to AIDS drugs mean people should be forced to become scientists and forced to invent such drugs and then supply them free of charge? Of course, put like that, the entire modern rights-talk collapses. But the contradictions of such talk are rarely remarked on. Sadly, questioning such ‘rights’ has become almost a taboo subject among the chattering classes.

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1 comment to Rights and nonsense

  • Ian Brunton

    Tom, I come unstuck whenever I try to convince collectivists that their ‘rights’ are nothing but entitlements under a particular government of a particular state. I always get onto taxation, which my opponent always reckons is a force for the good. End of argument.

    But your distinction that one of these ‘rights’ imposes a duty (as against a tax demand) on another person is a nice one, and I think it’ll make my task a lot easier next time. Thanks!