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Economic and political policy turns on this question. Are there rights that “states” have above and beyond (senior to) the rights of individuals? Those of us that respect individual freedom and private property answer with an authoritative no.

At base, the question is, does an individual have a right to own things, and if so, what is the extent of those ownership rights? Without putting up a ten page long post, the argument in defense of individual rights boils down to:

  1. If an individual does not have the right to own the product of his own effort, who does?
  2. Is there actually a pre-existing entity called “the state” or “society” than can even claim rights?

With regard to (1), if an individual does not own the right to the things that he produces, the only alternatives are:

a. Another man owns the rights to the things you produce

b. Another group of men own the rights to the things you produce

c. Everyone else owns the rights to the things you produce (in the same sense, no one owns it)

Each of these seems more ludicrous than the first. Argument (a) is saying that YOU as an individual have no right to own the product of your own labor, but another individual has these rights. In essence, we are granting the rights to life to one person at the expense of another. This seems more than morally objectionable … how can another single man have a claim on my output if I myself have no such claim (or even if I have no claim)? If I am idle and produce nothing, he would own nothing. But when I am not idle and bring something into existence that did not exist absent my mind and energy and “natural resources” then he has a claim on me?

Many people agree that claim (a) is absurd, and is in basic violation of both morality and fairness. What about claim (b)? In that claim, we are giving rights to a group of people that are not extended to me. So, they are entitled to pursue life while those doing the production are not. Most people seem to object to being ruled by small oligarchies as such and rule this out as immoral and unfair.

Ah, but what critics really mean is that no one should have a right to own anything, after all, the natural resources you were given came from elsewhere, and were not given to any one individual. Therefore the entire world has a right to anything you produce from the materials of the earth. Where to begin?

First, you might think that natural resources were given to no one, but what about talents, work ethic, good looks, etc? These were given only to individuals, although they were not produced. Would one object to me not taking advantage of my natural ability to work hard because not everyone was born with the same ethic?

Second, it is important to remember that there is virtually no such thing as a resource (exceptions are obvious) without the application of the mind of man to figure out what to do with it. For centuries and centuries, a gooey black substance fouled drinking water and occasionally caused fires … but them someone figured out in the mid-19th century that this stuff would be useful to provide indoor lighting, and ultimate to power an engine. Oil is only a resource in the sense that it is one way to produce energy. When someone figures out a cheaper and more efficient way, then oil would no longer become a resource … what matters is not the physical product, but rather the capabilities that  are derived from that product. And these capabilities are not inherent, they are only there as a result of the application of the human mind and effort.

That behind us, let us directly think of option (c). If everyone owns the product of your labor, then what you are saying that everyone has an equal quotal share in what you produce. In a world of nearly 7 billion people, this means that everyone has a 1/7billionth property right in you … everyone in the world is entitled to what you produce, but you are not. Even if we accede this right, we realize that the world would soon end if an individual needed the approval of 7 billion people to take even the most basic actions. Imagine figuring out whether you had the right to trade your apple for a peanut butter sandwich. You would need to get permission from ALL 7 billion people before you could make the trade. We would all starve in less than a year. So, to make things run more efficiently, we elect representatives to act in the interest of the 7 billion people. But that takes us back to argument (b), which we already said was morally derelict.

Now, it might be the case that individuals might be willing to part with some of the produce of their own labor to secure protection for their personal property. But that in no way means that the produce needs to be forcibly taken from me in order to have the state serve the role as protector. The case is there for third party protection, the case is less clear that this protection needs to be provided by coercive forces.

The argument against point (2) is more straightforward. In short, “there is no we.” When I teach a class of 50 students in Environmental Economics, there is no rational entity called “Economics 238.” When we all leave the classroom, there is not a 51st person in the room still taking notes, by the name of Economics 238. That is simply convenient shorthand for talking about the 50 living, breathing, thinking individuals that happen to have enrolled in a course with me. How can an entity that does not exist have rights over something that does exist?

Thus, there is no such thing as “society” or “the United States.” If you believe that the United States is an entity, then you must by extension walk around thinking that you were the first person to walk on the moon in 1969 or that you won 8 gold medals in swimming at the Beijing games. After all, didn’t the US walk on the moon first, or didn’t the US win swimming golds? Of couse, I disagree. Similarly, if you believe that we are a body politic with rights, then you must also believe that YOU invaded Iraq, after all, the US invaded Iraq. Many of you cringe when you think of that, but it is no different than claiming that a society exists and has standing. If it has standing for the things you like, then it also has standing for the things you don’t. So, you also permitted slavery for hundreds of years of American history, you killed thousands of Indians in the 19th century, you dropped an atomic bomb … TWICE, you are responsible for an oil spill in Alaska in the early 1990s, you made the passenger pigeon extinct, …

The point is important. Even if “society” lays claims to my property as a matter of the public interest, this entity still invaded by property. But since no such entity exists, then that invasion is even more egregious – it is just using the cover of “society” to perpetrate acts that any individual would find repulsive. If two of my neighbors came to my house and stole food from my childrens’ mouths, and we took them to court, they would be too ashamed to say that they were “the public” and were taking food to give it to kids who were in more need than mine. But, if these two people were representatives of 305 million people and did the same thing, not only is the act not condemned, but it is celebrated as neighborly and merciful!

A bigger point of course is that “society,” even if we are to grant that is an important and interesting entity, is still comprised of men. Human men. Fallible men. Calculating men. Good men. Satanic men. Altruistic men. But men they are. And as men, to say that society has rights that me as an individual does not have is simply saying that some men are more equal than others, than some men deserve rights and others do not. And even if you find this latter point acceptable, WHO is to decide which men deserve which rights? Is it men still?

Finally, an interesting rejoinder came from one of my students today, who asked,”can’t the same argument be applied to the analysis of the rights of man?” In other words, “individual” is simply shorthand for a collection of atoms and molecules and matter, so it cannot be the case that an individual has rights, the rights of the sub-matter supersede the rights of an “individual” for much the same reason as societies do not have rights. Well, is it turtles all the way down?

I think not. An individual is an individual precisely because he is a rationally calculating, thinking, mind. Atoms and molecules, no matter how alive they might be, do not have the power of reason, they do not have a mind. That is the distinction between humans and societies too. Furthermore, I know this discussion gets a little philosophical, but the atoms and molecules example is a cutesy little argument, but it doesn’t pass the smell test. It might satisfy some philosophical mastubatory urge (no offense to my student here) to demonstrate that we as human beings do not exist, but it STILL does not change the nature of the relationship between individuals and “society.”

How do I know? Well, have some atom or molecule try to assert its claim for existence or property. I’ll be waiting a pretty long time. And have the “state”, independent of relying on an INDIVIDUAL to make the claim for it, try to assert its right to own anything that I produce. I’ll be waiting an even longer time. Even the best philosophers should know, when your refutation of an axiom relies on using that axiom itself, your legitimacy is blown out of the water. Sadly, millions of individuals have been seduced into thinking there are living rooms and kitchens and bathrooms behind this Potemkin facade.

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