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What are Rights?

What are “rights”? What does it mean to “have” a right?

Are rights physical objects, so that I could go find a right by bumbling through the forest until I stubbed my toe on one? Rights are not physical objects that can be observed with the five senses… and for the record, nobody claims that they are.

If they are not physical, then are rights a property of some thing? Like how having gills is a property of all fish? But this too seems unlikely; what thing? Being human? This only pushes the problem back one layer to “human rights,” which still lacks a definition. Could we somehow objectively identify which humans “have” a certain right? Clearly being a human does not assure you the ability to free speech, for example, because there are millions of humans across the world without free speech. (Not to mention that nobody means that rights are properties of a category when they say “I have a right to X”)

Rights are neither physical objects nor properties of categories, so then, what are they? Could they be supernatural? But nobody claims that rights “exist” in a supernatural way, like that they have a personality or they permeate the material word in some electromagnetic field -like way. Besides, in the absence of some type of religious proof (I see no concept of rights in the Bible), if you take that to be a legitimate method of proof, there is no way to discuss or identify these rights.

So rights aren’t natural, properties of categories of things, or supernatural. What are they? They don’t “exist” in the same way that most things exist. They “aren’t real” in the same way that most things are real.

As far as I can tell, when someone says “I have a right to freedom of association” this means that their ancestors have managed to arm-wrestle the government into agreeing never to violate their ability to freely associate. So there is a rule on the books about free association, and we the people are going to take full advantage of that rule on the books, and file lawsuit after lawsuit against any government official that tries to stop us from freely associating.

The same is true of all rights. They do not “exist” in the sense that they are physical objects, or supernatural objects, or properties of categories of things… but they do “exist” in the sense that rights describe a relationship between two agents, A and B, with B = Government.

That A has the right to X means that A cannot be prevented from doing X by person B. (Or in a slightly more obnoxious formulation of positive rights, A must be given the opportunity to do X by person B; this is how the “right” to healthcare and education works).

So “where” is the right in this situation? It is no where! It cannot be found, it is not a phenomenon, and independent observers with no access to the national political rhetoric would not notice it. They would notice that the US government really never steps in to block free assembly. They would notice that. But they would not notice a “right” anywhere in the process.

A radio host I used to follow once called this “the Deadly Superstition of Human Rights,” because by claiming that some new thing is a right, we open the door to more taxation, less freedom in that topic, and the slow crawl of bureaucracy. Before claiming as a “right” some expectation that you — in this moment, in this cultural context, facing the current economic pressures you now face, on the front end of the enforcement of the law — currently have, at least consider the consequences of forever enshrining that provision into law.

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