David R. Henderson  

A Phony Right: My Letter to the Monterey Herald

A Freedman's Moral Intuition ... David Brooks on Charles Murray...

Yesterday, the Monterey County Herald, my local paper, ran my letter as the lead letter. I was commenting on this story. Here it is:

A 'phony right'

Your article Saturday on CSU Monterey Bay students who are unhappy with a private company's inspections of the student housing they live in contains a telling quote. Student spokesman Michael Frederiksen states, "We all deserve safe and secure housing." But to say that someone deserves something is to say that others have a duty to provide it. Who has that duty? Frederiksen thinks that taxpayers owe it to him and his fellow students. But why do students' decisions to attend a heavily subsidized Cal State University automatically impose a duty on taxpayers who do not attend?

Frederiksen is advocating a "phony right." What's the difference between a phony right and a real right? A real right is, say, my right not to be murdered. The only responsibility that imposes on you and others is not to murder me. In other words, it's a responsibility not to do something. The "right" to good housing, though, is a phony right because it implies that someone else has a positive duty to provide it. And let's not hide behind government. The only way government can provide things is by forcibly taking from others.

David R. Henderson
Pacific Grove

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Economic Education

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Devil's Advocate writes:

Now David, you make a big leap from the student's comment on "deserving" and your argument on "rights." Deserve and rights are not the same. By "deserving," I think this student ment he pays the college for a service (room, board, and knowledge), and as a result he deserves to have safe and secure housing, etc.... California State subsidies aside...the student does still pay in some measure. However, California State Subsidies to the front, I think the California Tax Payers are paying to have have safe and secure housing for the student...just like they pay to have a safe and secure neighborhoods protected by police...just like they pay the Federal Government to protect them from enemies. Agree, or am I missing something?

Hume writes:


To call this a "phony right" is extremely misleading. While I agree that the majority of rights are negative rights, and while I agree with Lomasky's claim that rights talk is often pernicious, to act as if a claim to a positive right is a phony right is to act as if there is not widespread philosophical disagreement on this issue. Even worse, your position (and mine) is a minority position in the field. So to call it a "phony right" is mere rhetoric. Call it what it is: a claim to a positive right.

"is a phony right because it implies that someone else has a positive duty to provide it."

I do not think you actually agree with such a strong statement. For example, do you believe that individuals have a "right to a jury trial"? Do you believe that individuals have a right to any trial, whether civil or criminal? Do you believe that individuals have a right to government protection of their person and property? Do you believe that individuals have a right to an attorney? If so, you believe in at least some positive rights.

David R. Henderson writes:

I don’t find your first paragraph persuasive. While I agree with you that your and my position is a minority one, I don’t, as Milton Friedman once put it, determine truth by counting noses. What if we were in the United States in 1810 and I said that slaves should not be slaves because they have rights? Then I went further and said that the alleged property rights that owners had in slaves were phony. Those would have been minority views. But that doesn’t make those alleged property rights any less phony.
On our last paragraph, you make a good point. I’ll think about it.

Joel Johnson writes:

If you believe that you live on some sort of social island where it's okay to ignore the suffering of other people who struggle to provide basic needs for their families then you are wrong. It's not crazy in the richest nation in history to declare certain "positive rights". David, I love you when you are calling out government infringement on civil liberties but this idea that the world would be a better place without the government "forcibly taking from others" is a fantasy. We don't own the earth, the earth owns us. We have to share the air, the water, and the soil. We are responsible for other people's suffering and needs whether we like it or not. If we turn our backs on that responsibility we will eventually be destroyed by desperate people "forcibly taking from others" what they need to stay alive.

Hume writes:


You make a fair point, although I do not think the analogy holds as well in our situation. I think that we can recognize that there is reasonable disagreement regarding the existence, nature, and scope of positive rights in general. In light of such reasonable disagreement, to call the entire field of positive rights “phony rights” seems a bit much.

On the other hand, if the academy was wedded to the idea that slave ownership was a fundamental right, we could argue that such a claim is manifestly unreasonable, irrational, and immoral. This is a claim to a phony right. My point is that there is a difference between manifestly unreasonable claims and reasonable disagreement, with the issue of positive rights falling into the latter category.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Joel Johnson,
I stated that people don’t have rights to others’ property and you concluded that I believe that I "live on some sort of social island where it's okay to ignore the suffering of other people who struggle to provide basic needs for their families.” Actually, I don’t think it’s okay to ignore the suffering of others. Do you see your leap in logic? If not, check this earlier post.

rpl writes:

Hume, this:

I think that we can recognize that there is reasonable disagreement regarding the existence, nature, and scope of positive rights in general.

is not a strong argument. It amounts to "proof" by vigorous assertion. If you want to make the argument that it makes sense to assert some positive rights, then make the argument. Merely asserting that there is a controversy doesn't tell us anything. Perhaps the arguments on one side of that controversy are bad.

As to your examples of plausible positive rights, two of them (trial by jury, legal representation) are actually negative rights in disguise. A person (the prosecutor) wants to do something to you, and he must meet certain requirements before he is allowed to do so.

Your last example (law enforcement) gets to the core of where I think David's argument is weakest, to wit, genuine public goods (as contrasted with private goods that some people call "public goods" because they would like to see them provided at public expense). Even here I wonder if David would defend his position on the grounds that none of us have a "right" to those public goods; rather, we have decided as a group that it would be a good idea to provide them.

By the way, it's important to be careful about how we use the word "right," since it can mean a couple of different things. David is talking about "natural rights," which involve a moral claim on other people. We shouldn't confuse them with "legal rights," which exist because the law says they do. You have a right (of the second kind) to expect that the law be followed, even if that law grants you something that is not a right in the first sense of the word. I think this distinction also has some bearing on some of the positive rights you propose.

Joel Johnson writes:

Thanks David. I do see the leap in logic. Let me fill in the gap. How do we solve the collective action problem that occurs when you try to get a bunch of selfish people like you and me to take care of our fellow human beings? In other words, how do we cement the social contract? I don't see how we can do it without a government and taxation.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Joel Johnson,
Thanks, Joel. You ask a good question. Here’s a part of the answer.

william occam writes:

Joel Johnson

You describe America as the "richest nation in history". We could also describe America as the most indebted country in history (well maybe Japan wins that competition). Did you take a look at our fiscal condition recently? Have you noticed what happened to all the previous "richest nations in history"?

We can have ideological, intellectual or economic disagreements about what responsibilities we have to our fellow citizens; however the problem we have is that we have a lot of people who feel they are "deserving" in one way or another, but we do not have nearly enough resources to provide for them all even if we wanted to.

Joel Johnson writes:


There is more than enough to go around. We are the richest nation in history, even if you take into account our debt, which is about one year's worth of income. It is a moral failure to have human beings in the United States go without their basic needs being met, whether or not they are criminals, moochers, entitled lazy good-for-nothings, whatever. It is still a moral failure.

Wasting money on trillion dollar wars of choice and letting doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies perpetuate a system where health care costs are out of control certainly makes it harder to send our kids to preschool, make sure folks have access to health care, build roads, etc.

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