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L. Neil Smith's
Number 675, June 17, 2012

"Giant man-eating ants!"

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Rights Do Exist
by Ann Morgan

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Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

I would like to comment on something in the article by Matthew Sims. ("The Will of the Majority Sometimes Trumps the Will of the Individual?") He mentions that he often encounters individuals who claim that 'rights' are non-existent, due to a combination of their being intangible, and lengthy to describe in other language. Both of these reasons are fallacious. When I studied biology in college, one of my professors touched on the second issue, he said that people often complained about papers written by scientists, and asked such things as 'why do scientists always have to use such long words'?. By which they meant, words which they were not familiar with. What these people often failed to realise, is that the 'long' (or unfamiliar words) actually are the simplest way of describing a particular concept in science, the word is shorthand for something which otherwise might take several sentences, or pages to describe, and the reason why the layman fails to understand the term is because they haven't put in the requisite years of education to understand the concepts behind the shorthand term.

As for rights being 'intangible', the fact that something is intangible, does not necessarily mean it is invalid, or non-existent. Things like numbers and gravity are intangible, yet they exist, failure to abide by the laws of mathematics or gravity will have inconvenient or unpleasant consequences.

The fact that the failure to abide by the law of gravity will consistently, and predictably, have these inconvenient or unpleasant consequences is good evidence that gravity exists, despite it's intangible nature. Numbers are even less tangible, yet they can be used to predict the behavior of real objects. This is good evidence that numbers exist.

Rights are similiar, the failure of most people in a society to behave as if others had some intangible quality called 'rights', does, in fact, have predictable, and unpleasant consequences. I would consider this good evidence that some intangible quality which we call 'rights' does, in fact, exist, either in the universe, or due to our particular nature as human beings. I don't expect human nature to change radically and permanently in the future, since if some other nature that would negate rights were likely to be more successful, we would have evolved into that nature rather than the one we have. Therefore, human nature is part of the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves, and as a result of human nature, the unpleasant consequences of failing to treat others as if they had rights is no less valid than the unpleasant consequences of failing to breath.

Mind you, the argument that 'rights' do not exist, because it is physically possible to violate them, is also invalid for this reason. It is physically possible to behave as if rights do not exist, but as I said, there are consequences. Such an argument is like claiming that gravity doesn't exist, because it's physically possible for people to choose to jump off tall buildings, or to push others off them. Or that it doesn't exist because you can jump off a footstool and not be harmed. Certainly, fools, suicides, and murderers can do all of the above. But gravity exists, none-the-less, as evidenced by the fact that there are inevitable consequences for such acts. If gravity did NOT exist, then it would make no difference what you did, the world would be unpredictable, you would expect random people to suddenly be smashed to bits for no reason, or to occassionally jump off the Empire State Building and land unharmed on the ground.

The same thing is true of rights. It's possible to act as if rights didn't exist, to go out and kill people in the street, for instance. Society may even survive a few murderers. But claiming that the possibility of violating rights, or the fact that society survives a few violations of rights proves that rights do not exist, is as ludicrous as the above argument regarding gravity. There are consequences to violating rights, consequences that most people would regard as inconvenient at best, and highly unpleasant at worst. Most people prefer to live in a peaceful society, where they can be fairly sure that at least most of the time, their lives and property are safe. Our nature as humans makes us want to have our lives and property safe, we can't NOT want it, those aberrent individuals who might want it, don't survive and reproduce very well. A social contract, in which we acknowledge the RIGHT of OTHERS to have THEIR lives and property safe, is the best way we have found, so far, to acheive this. Those who claim rights don't exist, are really saying that they want to abrogate this contract in their favor, they want to have their own lives and property safe, but kill and steal as they wish. Thus, the repeated pattern of a particular elite class in many countries who retain guns (either directly, or by proxy) while denying them to others.

But there are consequences to the denial of rights. Countries in which individuals are denied their rights, inevitably degenerate into anarchy and poverty. Most people do not like such a consequence, any more than they would like being smashed on the ground after jumping off the Empire State building. Stealing and killing might be fun, and the view might be fun, as you are falling, but the consequences are not worth the 'fun' to the majority of people. Thus, we give rights to others, in order to protect them in ourselves. This was recongnised a very long time ago, and was phrased elegantly in the movie A Man for all Seasons:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

A refinement of this argument is that while the laws of physics and mathematics exist, because we can't talk or threaten them out of existence, such things as 'rights' are non-existent, because it is sometimes possible to temporarily talk or threaten people in such a way as to temporarily delay the consequences of violating rights, by fooling or forcing them to make choices that aren't in their best interest. But this is, again, the argument that human nature either doesn't exist, or can be radically changed. Which is a fallacy, if it were beneficial for people to have some other nature, we would already have evolved to have it. The nature of our universe is such that human beings—no living creature, in fact—can permanently act in a way that is against their own best interests. If they do, they don't pass on whatever quirk of their genes allowed them to do such a thing.

But denying human nature, the nature of the universe, and consequences in general, seems to be a very strong trait of those who deny rights, and affects almost every opinion that they have. The same people who deny the existence of rights and human nature, and thing that the consequences can simply be wished out of existence, if only they can find just the right 'tweak', also like to deny the laws of mathematics, and think we can have fiat currency without inflation, if we can find just the right 'tweak' for our economy. Usually, their very religion consists of a denial of consequences, in which the evil acts they perform in this life are either flat out advocated by their particular deity of choice, or will be 'forgiven' by him.

I think that this living by 'tweaks' to avoid consequences is remarkably unsafe. It strikes me as the equivalent of dangling 500 feet above the ground, supported by a very thin thread, that won't break, provided I balance my body just exactly right. I wouldn't count on being able to remain in just the right 'tweaked' balanced position for very long, and I question the motivations of those who want to put our entire society in such a precarious position, that it is dependent on dozens of such 'tweaks' to avoid the usual disasters caused by fiat currency or denying rights, when much safer positions, the equivalent of standing on a solid foundation, are available.

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