It turns out it’s Human Rights Day today! I came across a call on Twitter: “Don’t fight for your rights. Fight for equal rights.” This reminded me of an argument from Hayek: “If we knew how freedom would be used, the case for it would largely disappear…. the importance of our being free to do a particular thing has nothing to do with the question of whether we or the majority are ever likely to make use of that particular possibility… The freedom that will be used by only one man in a million may be more important to society and more beneficial to the majority than any freedom that we all use.”
This thought entered my brain when I was in a Constitution of Liberty reading group back in San Jose and has been percolating ever since. It has profound implications for how we think of freedom as a concept, and especially for how we should think about the sorts of liberties we want to support. I think the second part is obvious: even if I don’t need the freedom to own a business (for example), I’m far better off in a world where immigrants are allowed to start businesses like eBay. The same is true for more controversial liberties… we simply don’t know who ought to have the rights necessary to transform the world, and we don’t know what those rights are. So we should be prepared to err on the side of giving “too many” people “too many” liberties.
The first part (the implications for how we think of freedom as a concept) is a bit trickier. Hayek is arguing that the rights we all have aren’t terribly important. That is, it’s the marginal rights that matter. We all have the right to life. It’s important, but it’s not going anywhere anyways. If we want to improve the future, we need to keep an eye to things within our control; we could revoke the right to life (you know what I mean… that other thing is a whole different can of worms and you should write your own blog post about it…), but that’s not even on the table. What we need to be concerned with is those rights that we could conceivably lose because they don’t seem that important.
For example: women should be allowed to sign contracts, own property, and start businesses. We all know that to be the case based on our sense of fairness. But Hayek bolsters that argument: we should want that set of rights to be held by as many people as possible regardless of sex and possibly even regardless of species (District 9 and Planet of the Apes are two movies that would be very different if we attached rights to sentience rather than humanity). We don’t want rights to only go to people we care about, we want them to go to people who can use those rights to make the world better.