I’ve noticed a fundamental misunderstanding among many who talk about rights, on both the Left and Right of the political spectrum.

Firstly, as a libertarian, when I say that it is someone’s ‘right’ to do something, I am dealing with that which affects the ability of other human beings to stop them from doing that thing. ‘Rights’ are a qualification of how humans relate to each other; specifically, restrictions upon the use of force. There are two parts to this:

i) When someone exercises their right to do something, no-one else may stop them from doing that thing,
ii) insofar as exercising that right does not infringe on some other equal right of another.

So, for instance, someone’s right to freedom of speech means that they may speak their mind without the possibility of being forced to stop, but if they are on private property, the property owner MAY stop them, as that is THEIR right and jurisdiction. It does not mean that someone may speak whenever and wherever they want to. Nor does it mean that government can decide when and where a person may speak. It simply means that they are guaranteed the freedom to speak their mind insofar as exercising that right does not infringe on the rights of some other citizen, which are equally as important.

It is incredible how much and how frequently this concept is misinterpreted. People are misconceiving rights in a number of ways: by making up rights which don’t exist, by suggesting the presence of a conflict of rights where none exists, by suggesting that certain rights pertain to specific issues when they don’t, by applying rights to something other than human exchange, by failing to hold government to equivalent standards. It isn’t hard to see why people do this. If someone has a right to do something that you disagree with, you will naturally feel like attempting to obstruct that right.

And that is happening on a massive scale.

For example. In my post of January 16th 2005 in this blog, I responded to Stephen Tomkins of the Christian e-zine Ship Of Fools to correct him on his classic misunderstanding of rights. He wrote: “We all believe in the right to free speech, and we all believe in the right to freedom of religion. But if your religion involves holding certain things sacred and protecting them from abuse, and my speech abuses them, then we have a problem.”

This is exactly the kind of misconception I’m referring to here. Tomkins has made up a right, and then set about claiming that it has been violated! There is a right to freedom of religion. That means that nobody may stop you from practising your religion, insofar as in exercising that right, you do not infringe on the equal rights of another. There is also a right to freedom of speech. That means that nobody may stop you from speaking your mind, insofar as in exercising that right, you do not infringe on the equal rights of another.

An instance of an infringement of the right to practice religion would be making it illegal to burn incense in a church. An example of an infringement of the right to free speech would be telling a Danish newspaper that they may not print cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. But the scenario Tomkins sets up infringes on neither right. Someone who is offended by what someone else says has not had their rights violated. There is NO right NOT to be offended! And a right to practice religion is not “abused” (in Tomkins’ words) by what anyone says. Again, the concept of rights deals specifically with restricting human force.

Another example. A piece last month in the Walton Tribune of Georgia by Robbie Schwartz asks: “Where does the right for someone to bear arms and to defend themselves cross the line with my right not to live in fear?” The answer is simple, dunderhead; there is no such right! How you FEEL is entirely beyond the scope of any political solution to any political problem. If this question were relevant, it could also be a right not to enjoy movies about homosexual cowboys. And if there IS a right not to live in fear, where does it “cross the line” with the right of the Hells Angels to turn their thousands of Harley-Davidsons loose in a freeway convoy?

The question is ridiculous. Again, this ‘right’ has been simply made up. Schwartz invented the “right not to live in fear”. He repeats this idiocy later in the article when he asks: “Where does the right for someone to bear arms and protect themselves end and my right to feel safe as an ordinary citizen begin?” The question is demonstrable of an utter lack of any context for his conversation on rights. Again, Schwartz contrives the “right to feel safe”, because he doesn’t understand that rights relate only to the use of force in human relations, not to how they may or may not feel. Feelings are irrelevant to the issue of human rights.

American conservatives are keen to refer to the United States Constitution when dealing with political issues. That can’t be a bad thing, since a) at least America HAS a governmental guiding principal, and b) it happens to be one of the best custodians of liberty in human history. But it’s important to recognise that rights are what one takes INTO a political system, not what a manmade constitution gives you to take out. Whether or not the Constitution protected freedom of speech, I would still argue for it.

And the same is true for many of the rights we have, whether our governments recognise the fact that we have those rights or not. Residents of the UK, for example, have the right to defend themselves using firearms. The fact that the UK government does not recognise that right only means that it will be difficult, inadvisable and precarious to exercise that right; it does not mean that the right does not exist. In the case of prostitution, our governments do not recognise the right of one citizen to spend his money as he chooses nor the right of another to exchange sex for his cash. In the case of gambling, our governments are not recognising the right of their citizens to peacefully pledge their money to other agreeable citizens upon a game of skill and chance.

The only difference between the communist dictatorship in North Korea and the West on this point is one of degree. The principal is the same, and our approach to the concept of rights is the same also.

On practical (though not ideological) grounds, I would discourage people from breaking the law, simply because there are better ways to positively promote those rights that our governments do not yet recognise. I believe that my rights preclude me from having my income and property taxed, but I still pay those taxes, because I do not wish to risk the rest of my freedoms. I prefer to do my best to influence our democratic governments with this competing message about rights.

Now, such a message isn’t going to resonate very well with most people, because, as I mentioned earlier, people will occasionally utilise rights which make people offended, upset, frightened, or angry. There will also be rights which, when exercised, create a situation which is less desirable (for most) than the one which could be engineered by a government.

But, next time you want to stomp upon someone else’s rights, the most important thing to remember is that rights are equal. The sex shop and the church are the equally valid products of equal rights. The right to watch and the right to switch off. Gun ownership and juda. Danish newspaper cartoons and mosques. The right TO, and the right NOT to. The hamburger, and the health insurance bill at the end of it. Homosexual marriage and the SUV. Drugs and Jesus.

Once we can understand rights better, maybe we can start to respect them – all of them – equally.

John Wright