Hayek on Human Rights Day

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.

3 thoughts on “Hayek on Human Rights Day

  1. Let’s be careful not to accede to the modern notion that rights are granted by governments. We have rights simply by virtue of being adult humans. Governments have the choice to recognize rights or not, but they cannot create rights. Let’s also remember that all rights are negative (keep your hands off my body and my stuff). There can be no such thing as a right to education, a “living wage,” etc. Such phony rights require that some people be subject to rights violations in the form of taxation to support these “rights.”

    • It’s going to take more than a couple beers to sort out my response, so here’s a short/incomplete version.

      1). I’m in absolute agreement that rights aren’t handed down from the state. However, government policy (as perceived/enforced) matters because…
      2) Rights are social phenomena. The theories of rights individuals hold matter, but ultimately we will never live in a world where we can meaningfully codify everyone’s rights in a complete fashion.
      3) Because I see rights as social phenomena I’m more open to the idea of positive rights. I think it’s an awful idea to try to enforce positive rights in a centralized/state fashion. And I think there’s plenty of tricky aspects to positive rights that make them less likely to come up in real life–for example, we might all *want* for there to be a positive right to some minimal sustenance and agree that a hungry person imposes some obligation on each of us. But we run into at least two problems: 1) the coordination problem (“You saw him first!”) and 2) enforcing obligations to not abuse this right (that is, I might be obliged to give a quarter to a deserving homeless man but I don’t have a simple way to determine if he’s deserving).

      Related side point: if a positive right requires support by taxation, then we’re left with rights being handed down by the state. But if we can have moral obligations that we can expect one another to self-enforce then we both step away from a state-centric conception of rights and open up (however slightly) the possibility of positive rights.

      And a tangent: education is an inescapable part of being human. Schooling is not the same as education. I don’t think it’s sensible to claim a right to schooling even if plenty of people disagree with me. But the idea of a right to education is sort of like a right to existence. Only beings that exist can have rights.

      There. That should be a sufficiently big can of worms to open up.

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