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What is a right?

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Spideynw Posted: Wed, Aug 25 2010 10:24 AM

I think a lot of the issues on this forum boil down to not agreeing as to what a "right" is.  So, what is a "right"?

At most, I think only 5% of the adult population would need to stop cooperating to have real change.

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Nonsense on stilts.

"I'm not a fan of Murray Rothbard." -- David D. Friedman

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James replied on Wed, Aug 25 2010 11:20 AM

A "right" is the preclusion of the need to gain consent from others before one can embark on a given course of action without losing their moral credibility.

If you need to gain permission from someone else before you can morally embark upon a given course of action, then you're dealing with a privilege and not a right.  I would argue that state constitutions or "Bills of Rights" which make lists of important "human rights" are, by their nature, a list of priveleges granted by the state to its human property, and not an enumeration of real natural rights.  One does not need to enumerate natural rights.

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Spideynw replied on Wed, Aug 25 2010 11:23 AM

Neoclassical:

Nonsense on stilts.

Why is that?  Not that I necessarily disagree.  I am just wondering if you would mind expounding?

At most, I think only 5% of the adult population would need to stop cooperating to have real change.

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James replied on Wed, Aug 25 2010 11:30 AM

 Jeremy Bentham called natural rights "nonsense on stilts".  He believed there was no basis for rights without a state to grant them.

He was also one of the first proponents of "animal rights".  Make of that what you will.

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Spideynw replied on Wed, Aug 25 2010 11:36 AM

James:

 Jeremy Bentham called natural rights "nonsense on stilts".  He believed there was no basis for rights without a state to grant them.

So more like a state privelege then?

At most, I think only 5% of the adult population would need to stop cooperating to have real change.

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Clayton replied on Wed, Aug 25 2010 11:47 AM

@OP: I think what people (including non-libertarians and people who haven't given much thought to the matter) mean by "rights" are those actions which you are entitled to insist upon, possibly even using violence if another person attempts to prevent you from engaging in them.

But there is a larger problem surrounding the whole issue of rights and that has to do with whether the State's capacity to prohibit actions - even actions which you think you are entitled to insist upon - is delimited by ethical/legal bounds or merely by the bounds of political practicability. The root of the difficulty lies in the fact that it is supposed by the vast majority of people that any violent resistance to the State is prima facie a crime. Hence, while I have the "right" to remove you from my property if you attempt to prohibit me from smoking a cigarette (perhaps you believe you're saving my life), I do not have a right to forcibly remove a police officer doing the same thing, if he is backed by law and even if he isn't*, I probably still don't have a right to use force against him in any way, shape or form. Basically, short of the police officer actually attempting to rape my family and murder me, I could never justify the use of force against him in a court of law because the judge is, for all intents and purposes, his boss.

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*There are at least a dozen "excuses" the officer can manufacture on the spot, such as by issuing a lawful order to cooperate with his demands... thenceforth, all acts of resistance become defiance of a lawful order and, if he arrests me for such defiance, he can always pile on charges of obstruction of justice and resisting arrest just for kicks.

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AJ replied on Wed, Aug 25 2010 12:38 PM

Spideynw:

I think a lot of the issues on this forum boil down to not agreeing as to what a "right" is.  So, what is a "right"?

Technically, "right" means whatever the speaker intends by it so we must await each speaker's definition (notoriously variable, usually incoherent or just boiling down to personal preference/disgust). But for a reasonable definition that seems to help people distinguish what they believe from what they believe they believe, here is J. Hasnas from Toward an Empirical Theory of Natural Rights:
 
In the absence of civil government, most people engage in productive activity in peaceful cooperation with their fellows. Some do not. A minority engages in predation, attempting to use violence to expropriate the labor or output of others. The existence of this predatory element renders insecure the persons and possessions of those engaged in production. Further, even among the productive portion of the population, disputes arise concerning broken agreements, questions of rightful possession, and actions that inadvertently result in personal injuries for which there is no antecedently established mechanism for resolution. In the state of nature, interpersonal conflicts that can lead to violence often arise.
 
What happens when they do? The existence of the predatory minority causes those engaged in productive activities to band together to institute measures for their collective security. Various methods of providing for mutual protection and for apprehending or discouraging aggressors are tried. Methods that do not provide adequate levels of security or that prove too costly are abandoned. More successful methods continue to be used. Eventually, methods that effectively discourage aggression while simultaneously minimizing the amount of retaliatory violence necessary to do so become institutionalized. Simultaneously, nonviolent alternatives for resolving interpersonal disputes among the productive members of the community are sought. Various methods are tried. Those that leave the parties unsatisfied and likely to resort again to violence are abandoned. Those that effectively resolve the disputes with the least disturbance to the peace of the community continue to be used and are accompanied by ever-increasing social pressure for disputants to employ them.
 
Over time, security arrangements and dispute settlement procedures that are well-enough adapted to social and material circumstances to reduce violence to generally acceptable levels become regularized. Members of the community learn what level of participation in or support for the security arrangements is required of them for the system to work and for them to receive its benefits. By rendering that level of participation or support, they come to feel entitled to the level of security the arrangements provide. After a time, they may come to speak in terms of their right to the protection of their persons and possessions against the type of depredation the security arrangements discourage, and eventually even of their rights to personal integrity and property. In addition, as the dispute settlement procedures resolve recurring forms of conflict in similar ways over time, knowledge of these resolutions becomes widely diffused and members of the community come to expect similar conflicts to be resolved in like manner. Accordingly, they alter their behavior toward other members of the community to conform to these expectations. In doing so, people begin to act in accordance with rules that identify when they must act in the interests of others (e.g., they may be required to use care to prevent their livestock from damaging their neighbors' possessions) and when they may act exclusively in their own interests (e.g., they may be free to totally exclude their neighbors from using their possessions). To the extent that these incipient rules entitle individuals to act entirely in their own interests, individuals may come to speak in terms of their right to do so (e.g., of their right to the quiet enjoyment of their property).
 
In short, the inconveniences of the state of nature represent problems that human beings must overcome to lead happy and meaningful lives. In the absence of an established civil government to resolve these problems for them, human beings must do so for themselves. They do this not through coordinated collective action, but through a process of trial and error in which the members of the community address these problems in any number of ways, unsuccessful attempts to resolve them are discarded, and successful ones are repeated, copied by others, and eventually become widespread practices. As the members of the community conform their behavior to these practices, they begin to behave according to rules that specify the extent of their obligations to others, and, by implication, the extent to which they are free to act at their pleasure. Over time, these rules become invested with normative significance and the members of the community come to regard the ways in which the rules permit them to act at their pleasure as their rights. Thus, in the state of nature, rights evolve out of human beings' efforts to address the inconveniences of that state. In the state of nature, rights are solved problems.

 

Hasnas excerpt from Toward and Empirical Theory of Natural Rights:
 
In the absence of civil government, most people engage in productive activity in peaceful cooperation with their fellows. Some do not. A minority engages in predation, attempting to use violence to expropriate the labor or output of others. The existence of this predatory element renders insecure the persons and possessions of those engaged in production. Further, even among the productive portion of the population, disputes arise concerning broken agreements, questions of rightful possession, and actions that inadvertently result in personal injuries for which there is no antecedently established mechanism for resolution. In the state of nature, interpersonal conflicts that can lead to violence often arise.
 
What happens when they do? The existence of the predatory minority causes those engaged in productive activities to band together to institute measures for their collective security. Various methods of providing for mutual protection and for apprehending or discouraging aggressors are tried. Methods that do not provide adequate levels of security or that prove too costly are abandoned. More successful methods continue to be used. Eventually, methods that effectively discourage aggression while simultaneously minimizing the amount of retaliatory violence necessary to do so become institutionalized. Simultaneously, nonviolent alternatives for resolving interpersonal disputes among the productive members of the community are sought. Various methods are tried. Those that leave the parties unsatisfied and likely to resort again to violence are abandoned. Those that effectively resolve the disputes with the least disturbance to the peace of the community continue to be used and are accompanied by ever-increasing social pressure for disputants to employ them.
 
Over time, security arrangements and dispute settlement procedures that are well-enough adapted to social and material circumstances to reduce violence to generally acceptable levels become regularized. Members of the community learn what level of participation in or support for the security arrangements is required of them for the system to work and for them to receive its benefits. By rendering that level of participation or support, they come to feel entitled to the level of security the arrangements provide. After a time, they may come to speak in terms of their right to the protection of their persons and possessions against the type of depredation the security arrangements discourage, and eventually even of their rights to personal integrity and property. In addition, as the dispute settlement procedures resolve recurring forms of conflict in similar ways over time, knowledge of these resolutions becomes widely diffused and members of the community come to expect similar conflicts to be resolved in like manner. Accordingly, they alter their behavior toward other members of the community to conform to these expectations. In doing so, people begin to act in accordance with rules that identify when they must act in the interests of others (e.g., they may be required to use care to prevent their livestock from damaging their neighbors' possessions) and when they may act exclusively in their own interests (e.g., they may be free to totally exclude their neighbors from using their possessions). To the extent that these incipient rules entitle individuals to act entirely in their own interests, individuals may come to speak in terms of their right to do so (e.g., of their right to the quiet enjoyment of their property).
 
In short, the inconveniences of the state of nature represent problems that human beings must overcome to lead happy and meaningful lives. In the absence of an established civil government to resolve these problems for them, human beings must do so for themselves. They do this not through coordinated collective action, but through a process of trial and error in which the members of the community address these problems in any number of ways, unsuccessful attempts to resolve them are discarded, and successful ones are repeated, copied by others, and eventually become widespread practices. As the members of the community conform their behavior to these practices, they begin to behave according to rules that specify the extent of their obligations to others, and, by implication, the extent to which they are free to act at their pleasure. Over time, these rules become invested with normative significance and the members of the community come to regard the ways in which the rules permit them to act at their pleasure as their rights. Thus, in the state of nature, rights evolve out of human beings' efforts to address the inconveniences of that state. In the state of nature, rights are solved problems.
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Avast! I'm here to argue with Old Mexican.  Here's the beginning of our talk (about halfway down), if you care to know...

Old Mexican:
You're objecting to my arguments right now, yet you don't think you have a right to object to your murder?

Great example.  It helps to point out that I don't need the right to object in order to object.

You're confusing rights with physics. Of course rights are not  PHYSICAL IMPEDIMENTS.

If they don't impede action, then what is their purpose? 

Would you NEED to have some natural physical restraint to stop you from murdering someone? Are you a mere animal?

No, there are lots of reasons why I don't murder people.  Although I can guarantee that "humans have a right to live" is not one of them.  See, rights are at best irrelevant (and unless you have a completely ideologically homogenous population open the door for Leviathan), and at worst, don't exist except as wheels in your head.

"What Stirner says is a word, a thought, a concept; what he means is no word, no thought, no concept. What he says is not what is meant, and what he means is unsayable." - Max Stirner, Stirner's Critics
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Clayton replied on Wed, Aug 25 2010 2:49 PM

It is possible to deny objective rights without going into ethical/legal nihilism. Rights exist in the same way any human lingual category does. I have a right to eat my dinner undisturbed because that's just the way things are and "right" is the way we use language to describe the way things are, in this regard.

Note that "rights" is opposed to "wrongs" and has meaning, ultimately, in the context of a legal dispute. We say that the person who is in the right has the right to do as he was doing under whatever circumstances the dispute initially arose. So, rights are opposed to wrongs, that is, torts. If I am not in the right, then I am a tortfeasor and I am liable for restitution or even retributive violence. I have no "right" to do as I was doing when the dispute arose.

How legal norms emerge in a natural order society, however, is another topic unto itself.

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Clayton B:
I have a right to eat my dinner undisturbed because that's just the way things are and "right" is the way we use language to describe the way things are, in this regard.

I would contend this position, but I fear a return to the semantic debate.  Which is to say I don't interpret a "right" as simply an expression of the status quo, although I seem to be in the minority on that one.

How legal norms emerge in a natural order society, however, is another topic unto itself.

As is how the enforcement of rights (in the legal sense you provided) would occur without coercion.  Perhaps violent retribution is acceptable as long as it is enforcing a voluntarily agreed to contract?

Or, how would conflict get solved if one party refuses to consent to voluntary third party ajudication?

"What Stirner says is a word, a thought, a concept; what he means is no word, no thought, no concept. What he says is not what is meant, and what he means is unsayable." - Max Stirner, Stirner's Critics
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William replied on Wed, Aug 25 2010 3:40 PM

the power / ability to stake a claim that others recognize.  The power/ ability to create and settle claims that others recognize

"I am not an ego along with other egos, but the sole ego: I am unique. Hence my wants too are unique, and my deeds; in short, everything about me is unique" Max Stirner
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Clayton replied on Wed, Aug 25 2010 3:48 PM

I would contend this position, but I fear a return to the semantic debate. Which is to say I don't interpret a "right" as simply an expression of the status quo, although I seem to be in the minority on that one.

Well, I am not saying that a right is merely an expression of the status quo, see my above post on how rights emerge in a natural order from resolution of legal disputes.

Perhaps violent retribution is acceptable as long as it is enforcing a voluntarily agreed to contract?

I think retributive violence is acceptable in exactly those instances in which it is legally justifiable. In other words, there is no simple criterion that can tell us whether retributive violence is justified or not. The only way to know is to wait and see what happens. People will go about their business, disputes will arise, people will try a variety of responses to those disputes, some responses will be justifiable and others will not.

Or, how would conflict get solved if one party refuses to consent to voluntary third party ajudication?

Martial contest.

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William replied on Wed, Aug 25 2010 3:50 PM

It must also be stated, that any other definition of "right" may not be inherently wrong, so long as it fits the context.  Like oh so many things, without context, these ideas are meaningless.  We live in the realm of perspectivism, the world of Nietzsche, when speaking of such things..

"I am not an ego along with other egos, but the sole ego: I am unique. Hence my wants too are unique, and my deeds; in short, everything about me is unique" Max Stirner
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It's a good question.   What is a right?  

I don't have any answer.

But I do have a deep suspicion that it's all a load of guff.   I suspect there's no such thing as a 'right' and all the arguments are a load of long-winded, self-interested, pious claptrap.   As evidence - watch people scrabble around for justifications to their 'rights'?    What's the preamble to the declaration of independence say?   God given!    Well, ok - but what about the atheists?  What's their justification?  They just spring it out of a hat......

 

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Clayton replied on Wed, Aug 25 2010 4:46 PM

It's a good question. What is a right?

I don't have any answer.

But I do have a deep suspicion that it's all a load of guff. I suspect there's no such thing as a 'right' and all the arguments are a load of long-winded, self-interested, pious claptrap. As evidence - watch people scrabble around for justifications to their 'rights'? What's the preamble to the declaration of independence say? God given! Well, ok - but what about the atheists? What's their justification? They just spring it out of a hat......

What you are saying is true in some instances, but not most. Consider two random individuals involved in a dispute. The dispute could be over anything, and the individuals could be anyone from the President of the United States to the homeless guy standing at the intersection with a cardboard sign. What determines the outcomes of disputes? Well, it all depends on the nature and circumstances of the dispute and the nature of the individuals involved in the dispute.

Let's say I'm at a high-end bar and accidentally bump into the DA not watching where I'm going. Maybe he's miffed and says, "watch where you're going!" A dispute might arise. Now, there's really only two ways the dispute can go. Either the DA can grant immediate clemency and either ignore me or accept my apology or he can take issue with me. Either way, my response to the incident is irrelevant. Why is this the case? Because the DA possesses disproportionate legal powers with respect to me. I cannot hope to successfully sue the DA and any act of immediate retaliatory violence towards him, on my part, could only make my situation worse vis-a-vis his ability to have me thrown in jail and prosecuted to the nth degree.

This same situation of disproportionate power arises in many other contexts. If I'm in the back alley behind a night club and bump into some private security guard for one of the local badasses that frequents that club, I will be in a very similar situation. I can only hope for clemency but the dispute will be resolved as the security guard decides to resolve it. I have no input in the dispute because he possess overwhelming advantages over me. The same goes for the wimpy kid and the bully in a school hallway. Disputes between them are resolved unilaterally, as the bully dictates.

But if we go back to the original problem of a random dispute among two individuals chosen at random this situation of disproportionate advantage rarely holds. It is an exception, not the rule. Most people have about as many advantages in a dispute as most of the other people with whom they might end up in a dispute.

If both people involved in a dispute have about the same advantage as the other, then the outcome of a martial (or legal) contest becomes uncertain. In the case of myself getting in a dispute with the DA or a 6'6" 275lb. private security guard, the outcome of a contest is not uncertain at all, it is perfectly certain. I will be destroyed, either legally or physically depending on who I'm involved in a dispute with. The strong party has no possible incentive to come to arbitration or negotiation with the weak party.

In disputes in which there is some level of parity between the disputants, the uncertainty of the outcome of a contest provides an incentive for both disputants to come to the bargaining table and hammer out a legal resolution to the dispute. As soon as we are talking about law, we are talking about rights, since a legal resolution entails an argument over who was right.

Now, where you are right is that sometimes the lippier members of the population who get involved in a dispute with a disproportionately powerful party falsely imagine that they can alter the outcome of a dispute by asserting "rights." This is, of course, meaningless jabber. If I walk into my home and you are waiting there to ambush me with a firearm trained on me, there is no use in me waxing eloquent on my right to life and how you're violating it. You've already got the drop on me and the outcome of any contest is certain... I will die. Protester-libertarians are an example of this vis-a-vis the State. What's the point of protesting how the State is violating your rights when you get into a dispute with the State? You cannot fight them because any contest has a certain outcome. If you need a visual reminder, watch a documentary on Waco ("Rules of Engagement"). If you fight, it's Game Over. So, you have no choice but to cooperate with the State's expropriation or other violations of your liberty. Well, you do have some choice since you can always commit suicide.

Rights are not nonsense on stilts, though they're a lot more complicated than natural rights theory can account for.

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yuberries replied on Wed, Aug 25 2010 5:39 PM

I consider a right to be a claim (to a right). Whether or not it exists depends exclusively on other people respecting that claim. If they don't respect it however, they're less likely to have their own claim respected (estopell and all that).

So it is on people's self-interest to both respect and claim rights to the extent that it protects their property, and at the same time enables free trade.

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I agree with yuberries. Individuals can make claims and choose to respect or not respect the claims of others. Attempting to make rights out to be something more, such as something inherent in human beings, is to put it in the realm of the supernatural.

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yuberries:
I consider a right to be a claim (to a right). Whether or not it exists depends exclusively on other people respecting that claim. If they don't respect it however, they're less likely to have their own claim respected (estopell and all that).

This forum has come a long way.  It hasn't been easy.

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Interesting post, Clayton

Essentially, I think you are saying that an appeal to you right is only realistically meaningful when the two disputing parties in question are more or less equal as far as power is concerned.

If the ability to retaliate against transgressions is not at least somewhat equitable, than the stronger party will likely just subjugate the weaker party.

Am I getting the jist, or am I oversimplifying?

It's funny, this reminds me of the fall of Rome and the beginning of the middle ages.  Local strongmen and petty tyrants subjugated and terrorized the local peasants.  Over the centuries, each smaller holding was eventually absorbed by stronger and larger rival warlords, until we end up at the current nation state.

This may be a topic for another thread, but does history consistently demonstrate that tribalism and petty despotism eventually develop into kingdoms and empires?

If so, what can be done to prevent this progression from occuring?

Is this the problem in the anarchistic society that Libertarian property rights theories were designed meant to check?

Could it be possible instead to lean on technological advances (guns, cheap steel) to prevent the peasants (us) from being brutalized into submission by warlords and gangs in an anarchistic future?

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Spideynw replied on Thu, Aug 26 2010 11:01 AM

yuberries:

I consider a right to be a claim

Yes!  That is all a right is, a claim.  In other words, rights do not exist.  They are just ideas.

At most, I think only 5% of the adult population would need to stop cooperating to have real change.

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z1235 replied on Thu, Aug 26 2010 11:14 AM

Jackson La Rose:

Essentially, I think you are saying that an appeal to you right is only realistically meaningful when the two disputing parties in question are more or less equal as far as power is concerned.

If the ability to retaliate against transgressions is not at least somewhat equitable, than the stronger party will likely just subjugate the weaker party.

Jackson, this has been my main argument for viewing power (force) as an extra-market phenomenon -- one simply more powerful then them. Societies inevitably seem to converge to monopoly power (force) providers with enough power to overwhelm any individual market agent, thus evening out the playing field and encouraging cooperation. So market agents submit themselves to this power (limitation of freedom) and receive conflict avoidance in return. There seem to be no free lunches, after all. 

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Clayton replied on Thu, Aug 26 2010 4:11 PM

Interesting post, Clayton

Essentially, I think you are saying that an appeal to you right is only realistically meaningful when the two disputing parties in question are more or less equal as far as power is concerned.

Exactly - some level of parity between disputants is a prerequisite for the existence of rights.

If the ability to retaliate against transgressions is not at least somewhat equitable, than the stronger party will likely just subjugate the weaker party.

Am I getting the jist, or am I oversimplifying?

That's exactly what I'm saying. And I think it is something that is obviously true, I mean, I think it can be taken as a "praxeological" axiom.

It's funny, this reminds me of the fall of Rome and the beginning of the middle ages. Local strongmen and petty tyrants subjugated and terrorized the local peasants. Over the centuries, each smaller holding was eventually absorbed by stronger and larger rival warlords, until we end up at the current nation state.

This may be a topic for another thread, but does history consistently demonstrate that tribalism and petty despotism eventually develop into kingdoms and empires?

Well, there is certainly a positive-feedback effect involved where centralization of legitimized coercion leads to greater centralization of legitimized coercion. But the "legitimized" is key to the positive feedback effect. Without legitimacy, the positive feedback breaks down. Imagine a fictional organization of men conscientiously dedicated to propagating their genes at any expense over non-members of their organization. They will rape, cuckold, dupe, drug, steal, war, anything to win. Such an organization would obviously be genetically formidable (it mimics the real nature of genes within a species vis-a-vis genes in all other species) but no such thing has ever emerged. Why not? Because nobody has ever accepted rape and cuckoldry as legitimate behavior or successfully concocted a legitimizing myth for it (perhaps there are pathological exceptions that I'm not aware of but my point stands in any case).

If so, what can be done to prevent this progression from occuring?

Nothing. Human nature is not under anyone's control and I think it is human nature which is the primary culprit in the existence of governments throughout human history.

Is this the problem in the anarchistic society that Libertarian property rights theories were designed meant to check?

Well, I think that the historical progression of property rights (discounting their recent regression over the last century or so, in the West) has been to make governing (i.e. conquering) harder and harder. If you think of organized expropriation (government) as a disease of human society (it is literally parasitic), it's like we are building up a greater and greater immune resistance over time.

Governing has only gotten harder, not easier. There was a time when the king just had to publicly decapitate the head rebel and bribe the priest to tell the people that god was displeased with them for their great rebellion to get the people back in line and paying their tribute (taxes). Today, the king has to write welfare checks, pave the roads, manage health care, print fake money, run up phony debts which he has no intention of paying, and a million other gags, tricks, cons and hustles to keep the juggernaut rolling. We tend to look at modern power-grabbing as the end of government but that's an obvious mistake, from a praxeological point of view. Omnipotent control of the economy is not an end, it is a means to an end: parasitic subsistence. That governments are exercising greater and greater control of the economy is not a sign of their strength it is a symptom of the ever-greater hurdles which the prince must leap in order to keep his grip on power and keep the hands of his competitors (potential rebel leaders) off the reins of power.

Could it be possible instead to lean on technological advances (guns, cheap steel) to prevent the peasants (us) from being brutalized into submission by warlords and gangs in an anarchistic future?

I don't know. I think we are in a long, evolutionary arc away from absolute government but we're still a long ways from the end of that arc, judging from the attitudes of people I talk to on the street. Most everybody still uncritically accepts that there ought to be a dual law/morality and so long as this is the case, government is a permanent feature of human society.

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Clayton replied on Thu, Aug 26 2010 4:18 PM

Jackson, this has been my main argument for viewing power (force) as an extra-market phenomenon -- one simply more powerful then them. Societies inevitably seem to converge to monopoly power (force) providers with enough power to overwhelm any individual market agent, thus evening out the playing field and encouraging cooperation. So market agents submit themselves to this power (limitation of freedom) and receive conflict avoidance in return. There seem to be no free lunches, after all.

I think this is the standard view of force but I actually think it is mistaken. I think when you analyze human dispute-resolution properly, you can apply the concept of revealed preference in exchange to the resolutions of disputes and end up with an "economics-ish" theory of law! That is, we can talk about how we know people are better off after resolving their disputes through legal means than they would have been had they resolved the dispute through martial means and we can then talk about how legal norms emerge as a result of these expressed preferences. This whole line of thought is still embryonic but I'm working on it on the side.

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I posted my answer to this excellent question on my blog.  I quote it here in full:

 

What is a Right?

All rights are property rights, or rights of ownership. That is, the word ‘right’ does not make any sense except in terms of property and ownership. So, first of all: what is property?

Property

Property is the word given to scarce objects which are under human control, claimed, and given boundaries. Property rules are rules establishing what individuals can and cannot do with the scarce objects around them. They are rules used for resolving conflicts peacefully.

Now I will deconstruct this definition of property.

A scarce object is one over which a conflict may arise, where two individuals both want to use the object, but they cannot. Scarcity is context-dependent. Usually, oxygen in the air is not a scarce resource, because my use of the oxygen in the air does not prevent you from also using the oxygen in the air. Water is usually scarce, because only one individual can use a given piece of water; my drinking the water prevents you from drinking it.

A scarce object is under human control if one individual possesses the ability to use the object as some means in action. The sun is not under human control, since no one has the power to control it.

A scarce object is claimed if one individual expresses his will to use the object and to exclude others from using it.

The scarce object being claimed must have definite boundaries, delimiting the extent of the control asserted in the claim.

The first step to resolving a conflict (a property dispute) is to ask the question: has a legitimate property boundary been violated? Aggression is the term given to a violation of a legitimate property boundary.

Ownership

The owner of a property is the individual who has expressed a claim to it; the individual claiming ultimate decision-making power over how the property is used.  When two or more individuals claim to be the owner of some property, a conflict arises.

Let us suppose the conflict relates to an apple. A has eaten the apple, but B claims that he was the owner of the apple, and hence A has violated his legitimate property boundary, i.e. B claims A has aggressed against him. A retorts that in fact he had ownership of the apple, and therefore did not violate any property boundary. Both men are claiming ownership of the apple. Both men are claiming the right to be able to use the apple: the right to ultimate decision-making jurisdiction over it.

We can now elaborate three different senses of ownership:

De facto ownership. A de facto owner of some property is the individual who, in fact, has ultimate decision-making power over how a property is used.

Legal ownership. A legal owner of some property is the individual who, were a dispute to arise over the property, a given court (dispute resolution service) will award ownership to.

Normative ownership. A normative owner of some property is the individual who should have ownership of the property, according to some particular legal philosophy.

To continue with the example, who is the owner of the apple? Well, suppose that, for some reason, B backs down and accepts that A was the owner of the apple. Then, it is the case that A is the de facto owner of the apple. His will prevailed.

Let us suppose instead that A and B both stand firm, and decide to approach C to try and resolve the conflict through peaceful means. C decides that B was the owner, so A did violate a legitimate property boundary. In this case, B is the legal owner of the apple, according to the property rules as pronounced by C.

All legal philosophies relate to who should have ownership of a given property. They make assertions about who the rightful (proper, just, normative) owner of a given property is. They are based on some principle of assigning property rights.

For example, consider a philosophy which asserts that the normative owner of all apples is A. According to this philosophy, A is therefore the rightful owner of the disputed apple. If the case is taken to C, and C uses property rules based on this philosophy, he will award legal ownership to A.

Libertarianism is a philosophy which asserts that the rightful first owner of any property is the homesteader (the individual who has established an intersubjectively ascertainable link between himself and the object, by bringing that property into existence). Subsequent owners are only considered legitimate if they have all acquired the property through voluntary exchanges.

Let us suppose that it was B that picked the apple from an unowned tree. According to the libertarian philosophy then, B is the rightful owner. A libertarian court, pronouncing property rules based on the libertarian philosophy, would award legal ownership of the apple to B.

Rights

I will now return to the original question: what is a right?

There are three senses of rights. De facto rights are those rights that are actually in place in a given situation. If it is the case that A eats the apple, and B accepts this, then A has a de facto right to eat the apple. He is the de facto owner of the apple. Legal rights are those rights which are recognized by a given court. Normative rights are the rights that are regarded as just by some particular legal philosophy.

Much confusion arises due to confusing these different senses of rights. Consider the following example: the right to possess heroin. A legal scholar may turn to a set of laws and discover that no one (except the government) has the right to possess heroin. He is referring to legal rights.

A socialist philosopher may argue that no one (except the government) has the right to possess heroin. A libertarian philosopher may argue that all individuals have the right to possess heroin. They are both talking about normative rights; they disagree because they have different ideals and principles for how property (and therefore rights) should be assigned.

It may be the case that some heroin is not in fact owned by the government, but non-government individuals actually have full control of some of it. The government has expressed a claim to be the only ones with the right to possess heroin, but they are unable to enforce their claim. The heroin possessors have de facto rights to their heroin, but no legal rights, according to the government-run courts. Anyone who has a view about whether heroin should be legal or not is making a normative assertion about rights, based on their ethical values.

The Existence of Rights

Confusion over the definition of rights leads some people to proclaim that “rights do not exist”. Given the definitions above, it is clear that de facto rights always exist, and legal rights always exist, so this statement is incorrect. It may be claimed that what is meant by this statement is that normative rights do not exist. However, this is also incorrect. Everyone who has a view about what justice is, about what actions are aggression, about what constitutes ethical and unethical behaviour, is making a judgment about how property rights should be assigned.

The sentiment behind this statement could be better stated as “objective normative rights do not exist”. That is, there are no objective rules about ethics, about how property rights should be assigned.

That rights exist is undeniable. It is up for debate what constitutes just property rights, and legal philosophers of all kinds attempt to answer this question – libertarians and socialists alike.

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Clayton replied on Thu, Aug 26 2010 4:27 PM

Yes!  That is all a right is, a claim.  In other words, rights do not exist.  They are just ideas.

Try waltzing into the vault at your bank and tell the armed guard that the bank's property rights are just ideas. Good luck.

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Clayton replied on Thu, Aug 26 2010 4:30 PM

trulib, you rock!

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Well, I think that the historical progression of property rights (discounting their recent regression over the last century or so, in the West) has been to make governing (i.e. conquering) harder and harder. If you think of organized expropriation (government) as a disease of human society (it is literally parasitic), it's like we are building up a greater and greater immune resistance over time.

Governing has only gotten harder, not easier. There was a time when the king just had to publicly decapitate the head rebel and bribe the priest to tell the people that god was displeased with them for their great rebellion to get the people back in line and paying their tribute (taxes). Today, the king has to write welfare checks, pave the roads, manage health care, print fake money, run up phony debts which he has no intention of paying, and a million other gags, tricks, cons and hustles to keep the juggernaut rolling. We tend to look at modern power-grabbing as the end of government but that's an obvious mistake, from a praxeological point of view. Omnipotent control of the economy is not an end, it is a means to an end: parasitic subsistence. That governments are exercising greater and greater control of the economy is not a sign of their strength it is a symptom of the ever-greater hurdles which the prince must leap in order to keep his grip on power and keep the hands of his competitors (potential rebel leaders) off the reins of power.

Great stuff.  I have some things to say about it, but I don't want to derail this thread.  Can you link the thread you started where you introduced us to this theory?

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AJ replied on Thu, Aug 26 2010 11:33 PM

trulib, that was a great disambiguation. Objective normative rights are nonsense, but not all uses of the term "right" are nonsense. You've accounted for probably all the useful senses of the term "right" while snipping out the incoherent ones.

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There are two definitions of rights that have become blurred such that nearly all use of the word is equivocation.

One is suggested by the etymology of the word.  Right is the opposite of wrong.  It is acceptable to something.  You have a right to do x ; it is acceptable for you to do x.

The other is the communist version.  Communist right to x means that someone else must render service x unto you.

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Clayton replied on Fri, Aug 27 2010 12:23 AM

Right is the opposite of wrong.  It is acceptable to something.

I think we can be a little more precise than this, a right is a behavior which is acceptable* in the social context in which the action is occurring.

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*Actually, it is more than merely "acceptable", it is not opposable. That is, it cannot rightly be opposed except, of course, by the State which may oppose any action it pleases. The average person does not seriously include the State within the limitations of rights constructs.

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Vichy Army replied on Fri, Aug 27 2010 12:55 AM

Or we can go with the non-bogus, non-moral version of the word. A right is the opposite of a duty established by a covenant. No magic-sauce or cosmological entities involved; just basic legal meaning. All other uses of the word 'right' are hollow nonsense.

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"Toute nation a le gouvernemente qu'il mérite." - Joseph de Maistre

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I think a lot of the issues on this forum boil down to not agreeing as to what a "right" is.  So, what is a "right"? -Spideynw

...rights are part of a relation between two persons and an act which one person, the obligor, must perform if so required by the other person, the rightholder. A right without the matching obligation would be only one half of the relation and could not be exercised; and a "right" that cannot be exercised is no more a right than an empty water glass is a glass of water. -Anthony de Jasay

Rights can be created by contract or by the command of a coercive authority (usually the state). We can verify if a right exists by appealing to evidence.

Contrary to empty claims, genuine rights can (at least in principle) be supported by evidence. Hugh may say that he has a right to some of John's money because John owes it to him, and that he has a right to inhabit Jane's house because she has rented it to him. John is obliged to pay his debt, and Jane is obliged to make kier house available to Hugh, and these obligations can be verified by John's acknowledgment of the debt and the rental contract agreed to by Jane. The right does not exist without the matching obligation, and vice versa. Each part of this two-part interaction is a necessary condition for the other part. Likewise, Hugh may say that he has a right to a free or subsidized place at a university, and this right exists if the taxpayer is under an obligation to build and maintain institutions of higher learning ample enough for Hugh to find a place. There is, in principle, evidence of this obligation in the budgetary and other legislation in force.
Note that the interaction between rightholder and obligoris not symmetrical. Generally, it is in the interest of the rightholder to affirm that he has the right, and not in the interest of the obligor to admit that he has the obligation. In addition, the existence of the obligation is usually verifiable but not falsifiable, hence the burden of proof is on the rightholder, i.e. there is a presumption against the obligation's existence, which must be overcome by evidence. -Anthony de Jasay

Nonsense on stilts. -Neoclassical

Rights are perfectly sensible things. Utilitarianism (which Bentham did believe in), and the interperonal utility calculus that it requires, is truly nonsense upon stilts.

A "right" is the preclusion of the need to gain consent from others before one can embark on a given course of action without losing their moral credibility. -James

You are confusing rights with liberties.

...liberties are relations between one person and an act, rights are part of a relation between two persons and an act which one person, the obligor, must perform if so required by the other person, the rightholder. -Anthony de Jasay

Wow, I always wondered what it would feel like to be one of those people who use blockquotes to fill 90% of their post. It was actually quite...time efficient.

"I cannot prove, but am prepared to affirm, that if you take care of clarity in reasoning, most good causes will take care of themselves, while some bad ones are taken care of as a matter of course." -Anthony de Jasay

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Clayton replied on Fri, Aug 27 2010 1:46 AM

Or we can go with the non-bogus, non-moral version of the word. A right is the opposite of a duty established by a covenant. No magic-sauce or cosmological entities involved; just basic legal meaning. All other uses of the word 'right' are hollow nonsense.

You seem to think that morality is nonsense. It is obviously false that morality is nonsense. Am I misunderstanding you?

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William replied on Fri, Aug 27 2010 1:50 AM

I can promise you, in the very literal sense, ethics is nonsense

"I am not an ego along with other egos, but the sole ego: I am unique. Hence my wants too are unique, and my deeds; in short, everything about me is unique" Max Stirner
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Beefheart replied on Fri, Aug 27 2010 1:50 AM

Rights appear to the rules of conduct and social action between individuals-- the formation of these rights depending on how power and knowledge is organized within the general territory/language center.

My personal Anarcho-Capitalist flag. The symbol in the center stands for "harmony" and "protection"-- I'm hoping to illustrate the bond between order/justice and anarchy.

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I can promise you, in the very literal sense, ethics is nonsense

Ditto.

“Socialism is a fraud, a comedy, a phantom, a blackmail.” - Benito Mussolini
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Rights appear to the rules of conduct and social action between individuals-- the formation of these rights depending on how power and knowledge is organized within the general territory/language center.

It seems to me that your are confusing rights with conventions or legislation. They are related, but not the same. See my above post.

"I cannot prove, but am prepared to affirm, that if you take care of clarity in reasoning, most good causes will take care of themselves, while some bad ones are taken care of as a matter of course." -Anthony de Jasay

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Clayton replied on Fri, Aug 27 2010 3:25 AM

I can promise you, in the very literal sense, ethics is nonsense

In ordinary language, we reserve the word "nonsense" to refer to a sub-class which is distinct from things that are sensible or rational or at least not frivolous and vain. But the only sense in which I can understand ethics to be nonsense is in the rather childish sense of nihilism that everything is nonsense. Only if everything is nonsense can it be true that ethics is nonsense since we certainly mean something by the word "ethics" that is not at all insensible, irrational, frivolous or vain.

I'm going to start a new thread on this since I want to argue this out with smart people like yourself and others on this forum who take the opposite position and see where it goes.

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z1235 replied on Fri, Aug 27 2010 7:33 AM

Clayton:
I think this is the standard view of force but I actually think it is mistaken....

That is, we can talk about how we know people are better off after resolving their disputes through legal means than they would have been had they resolved the dispute through martial means and we can then talk about how legal norms emerge as a result of these expressed preferences.

I don't see how it's mistaken. Your concept still fails to address the situations with overwhelming power difference between the parties where martial contest is also avoided through mere submission and conflict avoidance by the weaker party. The power differential affects the very subjective valuations and preferences of the parties involved. "Voluntary" is in the eye of the power-holder.

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