Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Political tags - such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth - are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surely curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.”     Robert A. Heinlein

June 11, 2006

Why Any Rights At All?

by Nick

Edit: I should point out that I’m a doofus. I didn’t intend to mischaracterize Francois’ position. Didn’t even mean to intimate that this was a direct response to his position. Just a general thingy on the problems I see with anarchy…and why I support the concept of negative rights. And, as a couple point out, I might be dead wrong in my characterization of anarcho-capitalism entirely.

Introduction
There are many who claim not to see the difference between negative and positive rights. However, this isn’t a valid position to take given the extent of application of the positive/negative distinction. Far from being applicable solely to the rights of man, they find use in describing virtually every situation in which action is required. For instance, in Operant Conditioning, the terms positive and negative are used to denote different forms of reinforcement. Negative reinforcement isn’t punishment and positive reinforcement isn’t reward. Negative reinforcement is withholding or not using a stimulus (whether a reward or a punishment). Positive reinforcement is giving that stimulus to the subject (again, whether it’s a good or bad stimulus).

When it comes to rights, negative rights are quite simply those things you would have with no interference; Unless you murder me, I live. Unless you stop me, I’m free. Unless you take it, I have property. Unless you attempt to take it away from me, I have that right. Positive rights on the other hand are things you can only have with interference (again, ‘good’ or ‘bad’). A ‘right to a standard of living’ can only be maintained if those who don’t have that standard of living are given it by an outside source. This outside source is inevitably government. And said government works through taxation and regulation. You have a ‘right to a standard of living’, if I subsidize it. You have a ‘right to maternity leave’ if your employer concedes it. The difference can only be made up through the contribution of others. It is thus a ‘positive right’. And, because this ‘right’ can only be maintained through the coercion and loss of property of others, it is mutually exclusive to the maintenance of negative rights. The same is true for all ‘positive rights’. They thus result in a net loss of liberty.

But a man could ask why any rights at all?

Which is an exceedingly more difficult question. But one I’ll try to handle in the following post. As I’ve said, I’m a behavioral ecologist. And while I love monkeys, I also have a passion (if you couldn’t tell) is for philosophy. Particularly evolutionary epistemology and ethics. Evolutionary epistemology is comparatively easy to derive from first principles, and even easier to expound upon. Evolutionary ethics, on the other hand, is a huge mess. It is nearly impossible to derive a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ when all actions essentially derive from selfishness. We call the selfish but devoted father that is the Titi monkey ‘good’, while we call the infanticidal–but no more selfish–male Howler monkey ‘bad’. I still haven’t figured that problem out, and the manuscript still sits on the back burner more or less untouched, 2.5 years later.

The Problem
This basic problem of how to define ‘good’ without a clear universal is even more complex when it comes to political philosophy. The reason is because what at first looks like a simple problem is actually twofold:

1)Why are ‘negative rights’ good? Why are ‘positive rights’ bad?
2)Why any rights at all?

I’ve discussed Problem 1 at length both here and at my own blog. The major defect in ‘positive rights’ is that it posits the existence of ‘The People’ as a single entity, a collective. This differs from ‘the people’ as used by the Framers to denote a collection of individuals who share a common government. The idea of a collective, of group selection, has little or no basis in reality. It hasn’t been shown to exist. Rather, as outlined by Adam Smith and corroborated by two decades of economists, mathematicians, and behavioral ecologists progress and cooperation are simply epiphenomena relating to self interest. To quote Terry Pratchett:

‘I’m sure we can all pull together, sir.’

Lord Vetinari raised his eyebrows. ‘Oh I do hope not, I really do hope not. Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions.’ He smiled. ‘It’s the only way to make progress…’

Forcing humans into a collective goes against our very nature, which is why such coercive governments seldom last without the added coercion of lethal retaliation for disobedience. And why they inevitably succumb to stagnation.

The Solution
And in here we see a makeshift solution to the ‘good’/'bad’ problem: What were we built to do? How were we built to behave? What are the rules by which we function? And if the trend continued, how would things end up? In other words, if the models that behavioral ecologists and economists used were taken to their logical conclusion, what would we see?

With Problem 2 we run into greater difficulty. ‘Surely what we see in nature is anarchy,’ would inevitably be an anarchist’s reply. And in that no animal other than humans has a codified rule of law, he’d be right. Yet there are trends we can see within the animal kingdom, particularly among the most intelligent social mammals, that would seem to tend toward things that are too expensive to fight for.

The basic idea is that the ‘worth’ of an individual can be calculated in terms of the time and energy spent to create said being. An insect or a mantis shrimp doesn’t cost a whole lot to make. Neither does an egg-laying vertebrate like a fish or a frog or a snake. Small mammals aren’t much further up the scale. But as one goes up the scale in intelligence, sociality, longevity, and size, they get much more expensive and much more demanding very fast. Just for some perspective, while some rodents can produce up to 6 offspring every 3 weeks, you can only produce 2-4 wolves every two years in your average pack (which consists of several adults of both sexes). It takes a monkey anywhere from 2 to 6 years to achieve completion, a chimp or a gorilla up to a decade, and a human close to 18 years, with correspondingly lower interbirth intervals.

A mantis shrimp dying might only represent 50-100 calories lost. A chimpanzee on the other hand, would amount to literally anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of calories of lost investment if he died. Interestingly enough, the cost of producing an adult of a given species and the intensity, frequency, and lethality of fight situations within and between groups shows a pretty robust trend toward fewer and less intense fights the more expensive the individual. Fights to the death are not uncommon among invertebrates and ‘cheaper’ vertebrates such as the famed lethal dances of male hummingbirds. But amongst higher primate males (excluding humans), within-group lethality is such an uncommon occurrence that a simple description of the incident is often worth an entire scientific publication (in other words, pretty remarkable). Lethality between groups is likewise low, with Chimpanzees being the only other primate known to do so in a systematic manner. And even that is rare.

As might be predicted, the general trend we see, from ‘life’ on down through ‘property’, is that the higher the energetic worth of an animal, forcible coercion through violence drops lower and lower. Instead, the mere likelihood of retaliation is enough to convince the would-be aggressor not to bother. This is the basic principle behind Heinlein’s assertion that ‘an armed society is a polite society’.

Conclusion
This would seem to be an argument in support of the anarchist’s assertion that society will find order on its own anyway. But an important part of this understanding is that violence does happen. Animals’ ‘property’ (whether food or territory) is stolen. And females and males alike find themselves coerced by more dominant individuals on a regular basis.

Although the incidences of all of these would decrease relative to other animals in a human anarchistic society due to an increased fear (and cost) of retaliation, they would still exist. So what the anarchist asserts is that a basal level of murder, coercion, and theft is somehow ok. The depredations against others in an anarchy represent the background noise that proponents clearly ignore as mere stochastic effect. Which seems just a bit dismissive, if you ask me. And not all that different from the collectivist mentality of the leftist when you get down to it. Just as–according to the Supreme Court–the police are responsible for the protection of ‘the people’ but not a single individual, the anarchist is fine with a relatively low level of transgressions against man’s right to life, liberty, and property among ‘the people’ despite its continued occurrence amongst individuals. ‘As long as ‘the people’ are more or less free, who cares about a couple of them?’ is what they seem to say.

But more importantly, the anarchist imputes too much to statement that ‘All men are created equal.’ Even at birth, some are taller, some are heavier. Some are healthier, some are more alert. Should one strip away all of the material (environmental) differences, the genetic differences would still leave vasts gulfs between the most capable and the least. The anarchist’s basic argument of self order is dependent upon not only a level playing field but teams consisting of cloned players. While his assumptions hold basically true in the animal kingdom where the difference between the Alpha male and the lowest of the subordinate males doesn’t tend to be all that great, in a population as varied as humanity, the assumption doesn’t even begin to resemble reality. In such a system, where some are capable of greater acts of coercion than others, and where the threat of retaliation varies widely from almost none to almost infinite, a few will inevitably come to control the many. An oligarchy. History tells us much about these oligarchies, and about how noble, how meritocratic, how well-meaning they are in the beginning, such things will inevitably become mere tools for the ambitious, the greedy, the predators, to all the more easily take power with. And so tyrannies are born.

The anarchist turns a blind eye to the difference between the perfect world of their assumptions and the real world. The classical liberal merely acknowledges them. He sees that for society to remain free from tyranny, individuals must treat each other as if they were equal. It is not only the logical conclusion of the trend toward less and less coercive acts in the animal world, but also the only way to prevent tyranny. The young man must not kill the old one merely because the latter cannot protest. The man must not rape the woman merely because he can pin her. The strong must not take bread from the mouth of the weak merely because he can. Because eventually the young man will become a general, the man a police chief, the strong an iron-fisted dictator.

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14 Comments

  1. [...] New post up at Liberty Papers. There are those who say that positive rights and negative rights are two sides of the same coin. There are others who say that since rights are nothing but an artificial construct, applying them is nothing more than coercion. You’ve heard my response to the incoherent first position. The second position is a bit more difficult to attack. But I think I’ve provided a fair defense of classical liberal philosophy as opposed to anarchy. The central contention is that: But more importantly, the anarchist imputes too much to statement that ‘All men are created equal.’ Even at birth, some are taller, some are heavier. Some are healthier, some are more alert…In such a system, where some are capable of greater acts of coercion than others, and where the threat of retaliation varies widely from almost none to almost infinite, a few will inevitably come to control the many…The anarchist turns a blind eye to the difference between the perfect world of their assumptions and the real world. The classical liberal merely acknowledges them. He sees that for society to remain free from tyranny, individuals must treat each other as if they were equal. [...]

    Pingback by OK so I’m not really a cowboy. » Men Like Me — June 12, 2006 @ 9:46 am
  2. Nick,

    Have you read David Friedman’s “The Machinery of Freedom”? I think you’re drastically simplifying the position of a market anarchist. I personally believe the anarcho-capitalists make a couple of assumptions that are untenable, and that their society, if created, wouldn’t be stable. To go into all my reasons is a job for another post, on another day, but I highly suggest you read it. In the blogosphere, Catallarchy is a prominent an-cap group blog, and autoDogmatic is one I’ve recently been reading quite a bit. You should check them out…

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — June 12, 2006 @ 6:40 pm
  3. as far as I can tell, although anarcho-capitalists acknowledge the basic rights of man, it’s more or less an empty acknowledgement, since it relies on cooperation between self-interested individuals to be protected.

    As such, an anarcho-capitalist society is literally nothing more than humans participating in the same kind of groupings as the animal situations I compared it to. A rule-less society in which the practical constraints of behavior limited ‘crime’.

    I could be off, I don’t claim to be an expert on anarcho-capitalism. But it certainly reads like what they’re talking about is what I alluded to in the conclusion: a human society devoid of laws, in which coercion, cooperation, threats, and opportunity costs all conspire to eliminate transgressions against life, liberty, and property.

    Looking back, the way I explained myself, especailly when I got to talking about humans, I oversimplified myself which might be causing part of the confusion.

    A lot of the mechanisms that anarcho-capitalists mention as acting to preserve liberty I was thinking about in my head. But didn’t quite make it to paper. I was thinking about all of those factors operating in an anarchistic society. Just didn’t get it down on paper. Because I suck at life.

    I did take all of that into account before I made my statement that they essentially dismiss the basal level of transgressions against liberty which is a rather odd stance to take.

    Comment by Nick — June 12, 2006 @ 7:11 pm
  4. You have chosen a very, very bad example. I am the one who always has to defend the concept of rights against other anarchists. I am somewhat annoyed by the fact that you ASSUMED that when in fact reading my blog for a minute would have told you the truth.

    Comment by Francois Tremblay — June 13, 2006 @ 4:52 am
  5. Incidentally, after reading your entry some more, none of what you say as the anarchist position is anything I would ever say. I feel robbed by being portrayed as supporting such a position. If you’re going to do this, then at least quote me. Is ad hoc straw men how you conduct all your refutations?

    Comment by Francois Tremblay — June 13, 2006 @ 4:54 am
  6. There are many mistakes in this discussion of negative and positive freedom. For a solid account of these and all other issues connected with individual liberty (including limits of liberty), see my book, What Freedom Is.

    If you’re strapped for cash, you can read the critical part free on my website. But this does not include the presentation of a defensible definition of freedom nor a discussion of the problem of limiting freedom. For those, you have to shell out $16.95 for the book. Things are tough all over.

    Wells

    Comment by Wells Earl Draughon — June 13, 2006 @ 6:32 am
  7. I’d still recommend “The Machinery of Freedom”. It will give you a much clearer view of what an-caps truly believe. As I said, I still don’t believe what they believe, but I don’t know that your depiction of an-cap was accurate.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — June 13, 2006 @ 1:23 pm
  8. Francois, my apologies. It was never my intent to mischaracterize you or make you into a straw man. I wasn’t even directly attacking the anarcho-capitalist position but just talking about anarchy wouldn’t work. I suck.

    Brad, I’ll check out the book and return to this idea later.

    Comment by Nick — June 13, 2006 @ 2:24 pm
  9. I wouldn’t mind debating you on your blog (or mine, for that matter) on whether anarchy could work or not. Why don’t we do that instead? At least you would get a real anarchist argument to knock down. ;)

    Comment by Francois Tremblay — June 13, 2006 @ 2:32 pm
  10. btw, I meant your inclusion as a compliment. I was intending to say that if anyone could beat the crap out of my argument, it’d be you (I’d bet on you).

    I’d love to join a debate. You wanna make the first post? You could respond to this piece or frame a debate on your own terms. I’ll respond in a day or two on my blog.

    Should be fun (if a short lived bout).

    Comment by Nick — June 13, 2006 @ 2:37 pm
  11. Good idea. I may do that today or tomorrow, either way I will email you when I’m done.

    Comment by Francois Tremblay — June 13, 2006 @ 3:07 pm
  12. So do you want me to make the topic- why anarchy is (most / least) conductive to the establishment and perpetuation of natural rights ? Or proper morality? Your entry is kindof all over the place.

    I’ll still want to address one or two specific statements that you made, to guide the discussion and illustrate conceptually what I’m saying.

    Comment by Francois Tremblay — June 13, 2006 @ 3:27 pm
  13. Post is up!

    http://radicallibertarians.blogspot.com/2006/06/why-anarchy-is-most-conductive-to.html

    Comment by Francois Tremblay — June 13, 2006 @ 6:16 pm
  14. [...] Introduction Me and Francois Tremblay have decided to have a bit of a debate, sparked by ‘Why Any Rights At All?’ He says I mischaracterize anarcho capitalism. I say my piece was just badly written. I’d encourage you to read both posts before you read this as it’ll be pretty unintelligible otherwise. [...]

    Pingback by OK so I’m not really a cowboy. » Why Anarchy Isn’t A Satisfactory Protector of Natural Rights, Part I — June 16, 2006 @ 11:35 am

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