Reply to Caplan: On Negative Rights, Individual Action, and Liberalization

First, I fully agree that we are violating the rights of poor people around the world and that we should significantly liberalize movement in labor. I endorse positive and negative rights. The claim that “Obviously, many people do not have enough to meet their needs in a world where billions are in desperate poverty and millions die every year from easily preventable poverty-related illnesses. The current distribution of property rights is not justified” in no way entails that “we currently respect everyone’s negative rights.”

Second, while I think that the current distribution of property rights globally is very unjust because it leaves people unable to meet their basic needs, I do not believe the best way of addressing the problem is through individual action. Again, my claim that “I do not have property rights that extend so far that they allow me to withhold essential goods that I do not need from those who will suffer and die without them.” Does not “imply a political obligation to … unilaterally give away most of [my] wealth to the Third World.” I believe states and international organizations can play important roles in redefining legal property rights to better protect, promote, and fulfill individuals’ moral rights. Moreover, other policies may be necessary (e.g. liberalizing movement in labor) to better protect, promote, and fulfill rights.

Third, Caplan happens to be right that I do not agree that unrestricted liberalization is always a good idea (though I did not discuss this in my post). That is because free trade, for instance, sometimes impoverishes people even if it generally helps them. I refer interested readers to my papers on the topic for further details.

Finally, a general remark: I believe it is especially important for those of us who do not endorse mainstream views to listen carefully to what others are saying. Otherwise we run the risk of giving poor arguments in response to claims that were never made and failing to contribute important perspectives to essential debates.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Michael Huemer advances two broad theses: First, we should judge government actions using precisely the same standards that we commonly employ in judging individuals’ actions; governments and their agents get no special moral status. Second, he suggests that a society without a monopoly government might not be as different different as is sometimes imagined. Those who fear corporate power should question whether government, which bears a striking resemblance to an especially large, ill-behaved, and overbearing corporation, can ever be a vehicle for social justice.

Response Essays

  • Bryan Caplan praises Michael Huemer’s work on the problem of political authority because it avoids the extremes of both rights-based and consequentialist reasoning. Each has notoriously foundered on difficult problems in the past, as is well-known to students of political philosophy. Huemer instead resorts to commonly shared moral intuitions, thus establishing a strong foundation for his still quite radical libertarian politics.

  • Tom G. Palmer suggests two areas where Huemer’s argument may need elaboration. First, he suggests that a monopolistic government authority may indeed be necessary at times in order to solve coordination problems. Rules can help coordinate behavior, but they can only do so if nearly everyone knows about them and follows them. Second, Palmer suggests that the intuitionist method may only be of limited use, as people in other times and places will not share the common intuitions of present-day westerners. If we are to make the case for human liberty, we need to make the case to them as well.

  • Nicole Hassoun makes the case for positive rights. Without adequate water, food, and health care, questions of consent cannot be reached in the first place. A government that does not help all its citizens to secure these things is not one we could ever reasonably consent to. Somalia suggests that in the real world, anarchy can be horrible. Pre-tax income is not a thing we own as a property right; it is simply an accounting figure. These conclusions, she argues, follow from common sense.