Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Rights, the Social Contract, and Libertarianism

An often unstated tension in modern politics is the difference between negative rights and positive rights. Negative rights are those that state a person has the right to not be restricted by another person, and are ably expressed in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Positive rights are those that state a person has a right to be provided with something by the actions of another person, and often vary according to different interest groups. Some would argue that positive rights are completely at odds with negative rights, and some would argue that they complement each other.

To live in a society, people agree to an implicit or explicit social contract, which gives them certain rights in return for giving up certain freedoms they would have in a state of nature—more rights entail more responsibilities and less freedoms. As rights and responsibilities are not fixed, the people who are party to a particular social contract may change the terms of that contract by consensus if they wish. The rights and responsibilities of individuals are the terms of the social contract, and as those rights and responsibilities become more formally codified, a government is formed which enforces that contract.

Libertarians are one group that would argue that positive and negative rights are at odds with each other—some libertarians would go so far as to argue that absolutely any infringement of negative rights is unacceptable. They seem to either not realize, or forget, that being a part of society is sometimes at odds with a strict interpretation of negative rights.

Applying the idea of a social contract versus a strict interpretation of negative rights to selected social questions:

Should the government ensure we have a safe food supply?

Some libertarians would answer no. Yet without adequate rules there is no legal recourse if someone intentionally sells corrupt meat, or adds toxic fillers to a food. When a person buys food they trust that the vendor won’t knowingly sell a bad product; were a vendor to do so, this would be a breech of the implied social contract that the vendor will not do so. This trust is core to the modern division of labor system; since a plumber, a teacher, or a police officer cannot be personally involved in the raising of livestock and the harvesting of grain, they must be able to trust that someone else is doing it in a manner that is safe to the consumer. So the food producer’s rights to do as they will is secondary to the consumer are right not to have this unstated contract violated.

Should the government provide for those who legitimately cannot provide for themselves?

It’s been argued that no, the government should not, and that private charities can provide relief to the needy better than the government can. Yet the members of society who are disadvantaged through no fault of their own outside of simple fate can’t always depend on the charity of others. To argue otherwise is to have an over inflated trust in the altruistic nature of man; one cannot always depend on someone helping because of their personal feelings of charity, but there is a greater chance of the disadvantaged getting help if it’s someone’s job.

When thinking about weaker members of society who may need assistance to survive, the handicapped spring to mind. Not all human capital is physical, especially in modern societies. One needs look no further than Stephen Hawking to know the truth of this.

Should the government mandate compulsory schooling to a pre-determined age?

Once again, some of the libertarian persuasion have argued that the government has no place mandating that children receive education, or to what level or standard that should happen.

In a modern technological society, education is a key to success, not to mention important for the proper functioning of a democratic society. Children cannot intelligently make the choice and evaluate the personal cost of not going to school. Unfortunately, some parents of cannot intelligently make that evaluation either.

While it can be argued that a parent has very broad rights in regards to their children, the right to severely disadvantage them should not be counted as one of those rights. Support for mandatory education can perhaps be viewed as a slippery slope eroding parental rights, but it’s a compromise that attempts to balance the rights of the parents against the dependent children—the cause of future generations’ rights are served at the expense of the rights of the parents.

Libertarian sensibilities are hugely appealing sensibilities, yet taken to their extreme they depend on all parties to the social contract be highly responsible and ethical—a condition that destines it for failure as an independent governing philosophy. Despite this, the libertarian admiration for negative rights can inform other belief systems and clarify thinking about social issues.

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