Okay, so let’s start with the comment I mentioned. A reader writers (and I trust he appreciates that simplification is inevitable in a post that long, though I do believe I’ll be addressing his core concern):
1. I would split ‘rights’ into two groups…
(a) the right NOT to have things done to you or taken away from you. This category would include property rights (including self ownership) such as: the right NOT to be hit, stolen from, raped, tortured, killed, kidnapped, imprisoned etc etc
(b) the right to have stuff done for you and stuff given to you. The right to be fed, clothed, given housing, given welfare etc etc
Note how the rights in group (b) require OTHER PEOPLE to actively go out of their way to do things for you. This is what distinguishes the rights in group (b) from the rights in group (a). Group (a) right only require people don’t invade your space, hit you or steal your stuff.
And he objects to the concept of Group B rights on the following grounds:
By definition they require force be initiated against the public, which in turn requires an agency exist to initiate that force. And that agency and its actions immediately violates the most basic category (a) rights such as property rights and self ownership rights of everyone in society (for example: the right not to have half your earnings stolen from you at gunpoint each week).
The moral argument says that “we can’t just let the poor starve” etc. However, it’s also totally immoral to steal from others by force and to kidnap them and lock them up in a cage if they attempt to defend their property or their person. Violating one set of moral standards to satisfy another is hardly a workable (or morally acceptable) solution.
So this is classic Nozick: ‘positive’ rights to things like food require the property of other people to be redistributed, thereby resting on coercion and violating other rights which thereby renders them unjust. So in the name of justice, and liberty, we must demand a society in which some people might starve due to the absence of sufficient charity work.
I trust that this is, on the surface, quite absurd, though we must acknowledge that there’s an argument here to back up the counter-intuitivity. The problem is that it rests on three hugely dubious premises.
First, there is an explicit distinction being made between ‘negative’ rights to things like speech which don’t “require OTHER PEOPLE to actively go out of their way to do things for you”, and ‘positive’ rights which do. Step in the Stanford Encyclopedia with a spot-on observation:
Funding a legal system that enforces citizens’ negative rights against assault may require more resources than funding a welfare system that realizes citizens’ positive rights to assistance. As Holmes and Sunstein (1999, 43) put it, in the context of citizens’ rights to state enforcement, all rights are positive.
Now, it is the case that I may, in a sense, respect your right to free speech by doing nothing but avoiding you, and that seems to be different to respecting your right to food which would indeed require real action on my part. But the point is that if we wish to ‘respect’ any rights in the sense of ‘having a government which ensures they have a good chance of being realised’, such enforcement institutions are going to require money, and thereby the alleged ‘theft’ of personal property.
So if you wish to object to the government-driven positive right to food on the grounds that it requires individuals to fund it, you must also object to legal systems protecting free speech on the grounds that, well, judges need paying. So which route do you take: skepticism about all government-protected rights, or a withdrawal of the attack upon the right to food?
Secondly, we can doubt the implicit premise that seems to run through the veins of this critique. I paraphrase:
If A’s right to X leads to an obligation on B’s part to do Y, then that right isn’t legitimate or real.
Follow the Stanford hyperlink again, and you will see how laughable this is. The idea that a right to X entails an obligation on another person’s part to do something is intrinsic to the notion of a right. To have the power to make claims upon others is precisely what a right is. What could my right to free speech mean, if not that I have a legitimate claim to stop you from imprisoning me when I attack your bullshit? And similarly, what could a right to food mean if not that others must do certain things to ensure my right is met?
In both cases, we need a moral argument for why the right should be recognised as existing. If we can find those reasons, the fact it leads to others having to do things should be perceived as no objection whatsoever. That’s what we must expect. And whatever argument one gives for the right to free speech – whether it be the happiness people acquire from expressing themselves without fear of punishment, or the fact that this is crucial to respecting their humanity – how could these foundational interests not similarly apply to the interest all persons have in not going hungry?
Or, see Stanford again:
The moral urgency of securing positive rights may be just as great as the moral urgency of securing negative rights (Shue 1996). Whatever is the justificatory basis for ascribing rights—autonomy, need, or something else—there might be just as strong a moral case for fulfilling a person’s right to adequate nutrition as there is for protecting that person’s right not to be assaulted.
A final point: we should even question the assumption that people have boundless property rights which renders all coercive taxation illegitimate. It may be the case that we are taking what is rightly someone’s own, but this can’t be simply asserted. It needs an argument. And if those arguments imply that it would be unjust to ensure all humans are fed, I suggest that’s a strong reason for suspecting that something has gone drastically wrong.