One of the joys of life is being part of an intellectual group that meets once a month to debate controversial issues from diverse viewpoints. We span the spectrum from raging liberals to raging conservatives and middle-of-the-roaders.
One good friend is a libertarian and a devoted follower of Ayn Rand. He recently wrote asking us to consider:
"Imagine if democratic majority rule could never violate inalienable individual rights—just elect our representatives in a Constitutional Republic to defend and uphold our rights." My friend goes on to argue that in such a world there never would have been slavery or a Civil War, women would have always had the vote, Jim Crow laws could not have existed, there would never have been Prohibition or current drug laws, no welfare, no corporate bailouts, and no bans on gay marriage. Charity would be voluntary and thus heartfelt.
Here is my reply. Dear [Friend],
I agree with about 95% of your public policy points. Yet I don't think it is possible to imagine that life would be a nirvana under a scenario of individual rights full stop, without other necessary institutions or regulations.
There is at least this problem: rights are complicated. Examples:
I choose to not show beneficence to another race of people, and refuse to hire them in my business or serve them in my restaurant. That's my right. Their rights have not been abridged, since they have no positive right to food or work. Any law forcing me to serve or hire those I don't want to is a form of coercion against my own rights.
Now--do we really want to go back to that world of open discrimination in public markets? It offends the hell out of me, and yes, I therefore favor laws that would restrict one person's right in order to enhance another's in this case. But it is case by case. Our concept of individual rights has evolved to include treating each other person (gender, race) as worthy of equal respect, but history suggests that this new view is the result of hard struggle and the demand for regulations that enforce the new view. Perhaps eventually enough people will believe in human rights so that regulation against such discrimination is no longer needed. But "human rights" coverage continues to evolve! It now is starting to include gays. In fifty years it might be blue eyed people—a tiny minority of the population by then.
Insisting that everyone should simply profess a belief in inalienable human rights seems naïve? It certainly was not the view of our founding fathers. You noted that you would want your daughter to have the right to an abortion if she is gang raped, but what about the rights of the fetus? Who gives one person the right to say the fetus has no rights? What about the rights of future generations—the yet unborn? Do I have the right to burn up all the world forests because I own them, even if it means the destruction and death of the species?
Life isn't simple, and so we struggle along. Bentham, interested in Utilitarian public policy, said rights were "nonsense on stilts." Personally, I like rights. I think they are a wonderful invention, like money. But I also like public regulations that are appropriate and that change as needed with the times to serve the ends of society. That doesn't make me a socialist or Marxist, or at least I will claim that as loud as I can. And so would Adam Smith, who was a pragmatist, and used rights language as a way of convincing people to do the right thing for the poor—break up the damn monopolies.
[And, by the way, Smith had no problem restricting the rights of those in financial markets who engaged in speculation, hence he supported "party walls" and other regulations that enforced lower risk.]