On the BBC news website is an article reviewing the British educational scene 2000-2009. At the top is a photo of a banner which reads in part “everyone has a right to education“. This idea seems to have entered common consciousness: it is now almost part of what I would call the dominant ideology. Where did this idea come from? Is it correct?
Ayn Rand wrote an instructive essay on this subject, Man’s Rights. It is an appendix to her book Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal. In it she points out that, to say someone has a right TO something implies that someone else has the duty or obligation to provide it.
She begins by defining “rights”:
The concept of a “right” pertains only to action—specifically, to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men.
Thus, for every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive—of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice. As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights… the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values.
When this definition is not clearly understood (it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object), then statements like that on the banner in the photo are inevitable.
Rand points out that, if someone has a right to something, that means someone, somewhere has to provide it. “Have to” means whether they want to or not, i.e. they will be coerced. However, have to contradicts the basic human right, the freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice.
She further points out that the basic human rights are not granted by governments or monarchs; they arise from the fact that man is a rational being. She then concludes that to force someone to provide a good or service for someone else is therefore to deprive that person of their basic rights, and therefore cannot be morally justified.
“The source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A—and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational.” (Atlas Shrugged)
To violate man’s rights means to compel him to act against his own judgment, or to expropriate his values. Basically, there is only one way to do it: by the use of physical force….
Jobs, food, clothing, recreation(!), homes, medical care, education, etc., do not grow in nature. These are man-made values—goods and services produced by men. Who is to provide them?
If some men are entitled by right to the products of the work of others, it means that those others are deprived of rights and condemned to slave labor.
Any alleged “right” of one man, which necessitates the violation of the rights of another, is not and cannot be a right.
No man can have a right to impose an unchosen obligation, an unrewarded duty or an involuntary servitude on another man. There can be no such thing as “the right to enslave.”
A right does not include the material implementation of that right by other men; it includes only the freedom to earn that implementation by one’s own effort.
Observe, in this context, the intellectual precision of the Founding Fathers: they spoke of the right to the pursuit of happiness—not of the right to happiness. It means that a man has the right to take the actions he deems necessary to achieve his happiness; it does not mean that others must make him happy.
Whether you agree with Rand’s libertarianism or not is immaterial. In any discussion of rights, whether of the “moral” kind which Rand refers to, or the “economic” rights of FDR, it is important to have a clear grasp of the concepts involved. (It’s well worth reading the whole essay.)
(It is a mistake to think of Ayn Rand as representative of libertarian thinking: many present-day libertarians disagree with Rand on some points. To read two articles by someone who disagrees, click the links below to the articles by Stephen Kinsella.)