There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of freedom and rights. Many, especially on the left, will claim that man is not truly free unless he has his basic ‘needs’ provided for. ‘How can a man be free when he is starving?’ he will ask.
If freedom is defined as ‘the ability for one to act, speak and think as they like,’ then perhaps it is true that man is never truly free. But such is the nature of life. Man must provide the food, water and shelter that he needs for himself, or he will simply die.
Whether he does so directly by hunting and gathering, as men did for thousands of years, or indirectly by producing goods and services for others that he then trades, as is the norm today, is his decision.
What does not logically follow, however, is that just because man must provide for himself in order to survive, his ‘need’ gives him a claim over the resources that others have produced. No man has a ‘right’ to healthcare, to education, to food, or to housing — not when you consider what ‘rights’ actually are. This is the fundamental error of the logic underlying the welfare state.
In a state of nature, no-one has rights — things just are. A gazelle has no ‘right’ not to be eaten by a lion, just as men have no ‘rights’ unless we create them. Rights, therefore, are based on a social contract between men.
(1) As with any contract, no rational party would voluntarily enter the contract unless it were to benefit them.
(2) And for a political system to be truly just, there must be unanimous support for the clauses of the social contract. Otherwise, it is a state based not on a covenant but on the rule of the strongest, on slavery, or on a divine king, which as Rousseau illustrates in ‘The Social Contract’, cannot be the basis for a just state.
The only ‘rights’ that would truly have unanimous support are negative rights, rights that do not impose a cost on others yet increase one’s personal freedom. The right to life, the right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, the right not to be enslaved, the right to property, and to a free trial. Anyone that disagreed with this would simply be outside of the social contract and living in a state of anarchy.
Positive rights, which impose a cost on others rather than simply inaction, would not have unanimous support unless they were to benefit each individual. If this were the case, there would be no need for the compulsive use of force, since individuals would enter the agreement anyway. The only reason why force is required in our societies is that these ‘rights’ don’t benefit each any every individual (they would voluntarily agree if it were the case), and so compulsion is required to maintain the system. This cannot be the basis for an ethical system of government. Your housing, food and healthcare have to be provided by someone, and you do not have a right to force them to supply it — given that rights are based on a social contract.
It is feasible to imagine a society where all members unanimously agree to respect each other’s basic negative rights, then within that society smaller subsets of people unanimously agree to create ‘positive’ rights. That is in effect what private enterprise is — a subset of a wider community trading to provide specific goods and services for one another.
Whilst individuals in a society are always free to voluntarily help each other (I would argue that in certain cases, they should), it does not follow, as I’ve demonstrated through the argument above, that just because one ‘needs’ something, they have a ‘right’ to demand or take it from others. That simply is not how rights work. Having twenty children does not give you the right to demand I pay to raise them. Nor does kidney failure, disability, or homelessness — tragic as these events may be.
To paraphrase Nozick, many will instantly cast off these arguments as callous and cruel. That is not the case, because we are dealing with two different questions which are often mixed up and confused.
First, is a question of what form of Government is moral and just. What is the ideal political system? My answer to that question, as outlined using the logic above, is that the only just political system is one based on a social contract, rather than force (the rule of the strongest), slavery or the rule of a ‘divine’ king. Since the only form of rights that would be unanimously supported are basic negative rights, there is no ‘right’ to healthcare, housing or food unless you enter a private contract to obtain it.
The second question is how, within the just political framework established in question one, to achieve one’s aims: whether that be assisting the poor, increasing access to housing, or mitigating the effects of climate change. Whilst entire volumes have been written on the subject, it is telling that free-market solutions have historically achieved the best results. Leaving the allocation of resources to the free market, a system based on voluntary exchange and co-operation between men, is not only a morally superior model, it is also far superior from an economic perspective.
In the words of economist Thomas Sowell: “Capitalism is not an ‘ism.’ It is closer to being the opposite of an ‘ism,’ because it is simply the freedom of ordinary people to make whatever economic transactions they mutually agree to.”