By Bradley Harrington
“It is sufficiently obvious, that persons and property are the two great subjects on which Governments are to act; and that the rights of persons, and the rights of property, are the objects, for the protection of which Government was instituted. These rights cannot well be separated.” — James Madison, “Virginia Convention Speech,” 1829 —
I knew, when I discussed the concept of “rights” a couple of weeks back (“We Need Equal Rights, not Special Rights,” WTE, Oct. 21) that such a fundamental notion would require further discussion.
And, as proof that additional amplification of this idea is necessary, consider an online reader’s comment to that piece:
“An example of a ‘special right’ would be protecting a landlord’s right to refuse to rent to someone based on their sexual orientation, or protecting a business’ right to fire someone who is gay, just because they were gay.” (“Accountabullity,” “Online comments,” Oct. 25).
In reality, these examples qualify as instances of individual rights (property rights, to be specific) with their negations actually serving as the “special” rights instead — but that won’t be clear until we first define our terms.
“A ‘right’ is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): A man’s right to his own life … 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.” (Ayn Rand, “Man’s Rights.”)
Regarding a man’s right to his own life, Rand continues: “The right to life is the source of all rights — and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life.”
Thus, in a free society, the rule is clear: Men have the right to engage in any activity they desire, but only so long as those activities do not interfere with the same rights that others possess. This is what we mean by “equal rights,” and the social role of such rights is now obvious: To provide the objective means by which a collection of individuals settle and adjudicate the disputes that will naturally arise when two or more people are gathered together.
A “special right,” on the other hand, can only mean an exemption to that rule, that is, someone else’s alleged “right” to restrict, through force or fraud, the equal rights that others possess. “Special” rights, therefore, can never qualify as individual rights.
Now, with these understandings in place, let’s examine Mr. Accountabullity’s examples. Does a person who owns an apartment complex or a restaurant have the right to determine who they can rent to or hire? Can they choose, if they wish, to not rent to or hire someone who happens to be gay? Absolutely — and for exactly the same reason that someone has the right to decide who gets to sit in their living room.
Remember, it’s that person’s property — and remember that “the right to property” can only mean the right to peaceful use and disposal.
(Sidebar: You may argue, if you choose to, that a property owner imposing those types of discriminatory practices is actually limiting himself both socially and economically, and you’d be right — but that isn’t the point up for discussion! If you don’t like that property owner’s practices, go somewhere else. Your only legitimate tools, in such instances, are social ostracism and economic boycott.)
The supposition that it’s acceptable for “society” to limit that property owner’s right to rent to or hire as they see fit, on the other hand, is based on the idea that other people have a “right” to an apartment or the “right” to a job.
Sorry, but no one has a “right” to the products and services provided by others; you only have the right to them if the providers consent to provide you with them, through free and fair trade on an open market.
Carrying these misunderstandings to their logical conclusions, Mr. Accountabullity continues: “Brad seems to conflate property rights and first amendment rights, and that is a no-go, they are entirely different creatures.”
To the contrary, our First Amendment rights are actually sourced in our property rights. In fact, all of our political rights, including our “freedom of religion,” stem from property rights. You are not “free” to verbally abuse me in my own living room or burn crosses on my front lawn.
In such instances, you can argue that you’re being “limited” all you want — but, as soon as you reach for a government gun, you’ve stepped outside your bounds.
Bradley Harrington is a computer technician and a writer who lives in Cheyenne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
NOTE: This column was originally published in the “Wyoming Tribune Eagle” on November 4, 2016. Here is this column’s original downloadable PDF file.