How Many Rights?
The following article was written by Sheldon Richman and published on his blog Free Association, March 27, 2015.

So, libertarians, how many rights do people have? One (say, the right to life, albeit with countless applications)? Three (life, liberty, and property)? Or an unlimited number (the right to do this, that, and the other, ad infinitum)?

Because part of any strategy to achieve a fully free society presumably includes persuading nonlibertarians to be libertarians, formulating a clear answer to my question seems worthwhile. The simpler the answer the better (other things equal), because getting people to think about moral and political philosophy, especially when we appear to be challenging the reigning view, is tough enough without needlessly making it tougher.

For that reason, I would like it to be the case that we have only one right — a right that could account for what at first glance appear to be other distinct rights. The challenge is to make that case. Fortunately for me, Roderick Long does this in “Why Libertarians Believe There Is Only One Right.”

Long begins by noting that the libertarian philosophy strikes some nonlibertarians, particularly advocates of the welfare state, as “weird.” He cites one critic who complains that libertarians see rights violations all around while denying the existence of welfare rights. Long comments:

The unspoken subtext is: why on earth would anyone believe this? To the nonlibertarian, libertarianism seems simply weird in its insistence that people have, on the one hand, no welfare rights at all — and on the other hand, property rights so robust that nearly every law on the books stands in violation of them. Libertarianism, in its apparent stark and fanatical focus on negative rights above all else, irresistibly reminds nonlibertarians of the contending schools of Presocratic philosophy, intemperately insisting that everything was water, or fire, or motion, or rest.

But appearances can be misleading — and are in this case, Long writes. Libertarianism “derives not from an alien set of values, but rather from a quite ordinary set of values coupled with a recognition of the logical implications of those values.” (Long emphasizes that his intention in this paper is not to demonstrate the truth of libertarianism but only to show that libertarianism isn’t “especially puzzling or mysterious” — certainly an effort worth making.)

Mainstream libertarians, Long writes, “believe that there is, fundamentally, only one right: the right not to be aggressed against.  All further rights are simply applications of, rather than supplements to, this basic right.” (I state what I see as the basis of the nonaggression obligation here.) Long sets out a positive and a negative thesis.

Positive Thesis: “we have a right not to be aggressed against.” (He uses “aggression” in the nonnormative sense to mean simply initiatory force.)

Negative Thesis: “we have no other rights.”

Thus we have only one right. Long acknowledges that while not everyone accepts the Positive Thesis, nevertheless “it is attractive and … there is nothing mysterious about embracing it.” The Negative Thesis, however, is apt to provoke outrage.

First we need to be clear on what we mean by a right.

To have a right [Long writes] is to have a moral claim against another person or persons; but not every such moral claim is a right. My having a right to be treated in a certain manner involves, at least, other people having an obligation so to treat me; but it must involve more than this, for not every such obligation has a right as its correlate. I have an obligation to be polite to my associates and grateful to my benefactors, but they have no right (except metaphorically) to my politeness or my gratitude….

The obligations that are correlated with rights differ from other obligations in being legitimately enforceable…. Only if a moral claim is a right may you use force as a means of securing my compliance.

Teasing out the implications, Long says a right has two parts. The first is the obligation that other people have to treat the right-holder in a particular way. The second part is the right-holder’s legitimate authority to compel others to act that way. (Long calls this the “permissibility component.”)

We perhaps are not surprised to learn that the positive and negative theses are intimately related: “The Positive Thesis turns out to entail the Negative Thesis (at least with the help of some truistic auxiliary premises).” Thus it makes no sense for someone to embrace the Positive Thesis without also embracing the Negative Thesis, although may nonlibertarians think they can do so.

How is the Negative Thesis entailed by the Positive Thesis? Long: “The possibility of accepting the Positive Thesis while rejecting the Negative Thesis is precluded by the logical structure of the concepts involved. If people have a right not to be aggressed against, then people have a right not to be subjected to any initiatory use of force.” This is a tautology of great consequence.

If people had rights in addition to the right to be free from aggression, that would indicate that they had enforceable claims against others whose alleged rights violation did not entail the use of aggressive force. (If it did entail the use of aggressive force, we would be back to the Positive Thesis and would not be talking about an additional right.) That would in turn indicate that the one whose alleged other right is violated could legitimately use force to compel others to act in a certain way. (Remember, that’s an important part of what it means to have a right.) But since by stipulation those others had not used aggressive force, the force used against them in defense of the alleged other right would itself entail aggression.

In other words, Smith’s right to be free from aggression would clash with Jones’s proposed other right. That is incoherent, unless we dump the right not to be aggressed against — which would open up a horrendous can of worms. Long explains:

If an activity involves no use of force, then there can be no right to suppress it by force, since such a use of force would be aggression, and so would violate the obligation component of the right not to be aggressed against. And if an activity involves a non-initiatory use of force, then once again there can be no right to suppress it by force, since such a use of force would violate the permissibility component of the right not to be aggressed against. Hence the only activity whose forcible suppression is consistent with the right not to be aggressed against, is aggression itself…. Thus if aggression is the only activity whose forcible suppression is permissible, then refraining from aggression is the only activity whose performance may legitimately be compelled. It follows that by recognizing a right not to be aggressed against, we have thereby ipso facto ruled out the existence of any other right.

This exposes a fatal flaw in the theory of positive, or welfare, rights. Moreover, Long adds, it demolishes the “frequent charge that libertarians recognize too few rights.” Since the concept right implies that people must not violate of them, “every time we add a right here, we ipso facto subtract a right there; the total quantity of rights can thus be rearranged, but not increased. Perhaps libertarians recognize the wrong rights; but it makes no sense to complain that they recognize too few.”

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