Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism

Orin Kerr, in “One More Round with Tim Sandefur,” waxes plaintive about an exchange with Timothy (not Tim) Sandefur:

Tim[othy] Sandefur has responded to my post below.

To be candid, I find Sandefur’s response perplexing. He seems to want to wage epic battles over natural law versus positivism, with him as the champion of natural law and me as the evil positivist. But the questions we were discussing have nothing to do with natural law or positivism. When I was explaining what the cases say, I wasn’t saying that I think the cases are right, are true, reflect God’s will, or anything like that. I wasn’t staking out any jurisprudential ground at all. I was just saying that’s what the cases say, for those who happen to care about such things. If you want to have a theory of the True Constitution that makes caselaw irrelevant, that’s great: Just say that you think the cases are irrelevant and move on. I won’t object.

I, too, have been on the receiving end of a Sandefur tirade about my supposed “positivism.” As far as I can tell, what he means is that the “positivist” in question doesn’t share his Objectivist set of priors.

One of those priors seems to be the pre-existence of “natual rights,” as they are defined by Sandefur or some Objectivist guru, of course. Those rights are “natural” because they don’t come from anywhere, they “just are” (like Original Sin, I suppose).

This kind of Platonic mysticism seems out of character for a loudly self-proclaimed atheist like Sandefur. (A link to The Out Campaign — some kind of atheist, not homosexual, support organization is posted at the top of his sidebar.) If there is no God (or the functional equivalent thereof), then where do those pre-existing rights come from? Perhaps they were created spontaneously at the moment of the Big Bang, but can be perceived only by persons equipped with the proper antennae.

And by what grace does Sandefur know a true “natural right” from the plethora of privileges listed as rights in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which seems to be popular on the left? Unless you want to admit that your views are based on religious morality (and I’m sure that Sandefur doesn’t), then you have to start with something other than mysticism.

A good place to start is with the axiomatic observation that rights can’t be rights if they can’t be held universally, without cost to others. The right not to be murdered is such a right; the right to live on the public dole is not. We can, in theory, forbear from murdering each other, but we cannot all be on the public dole except (possibly) at different times. And even then we must impose on others (including those who would prefer to be on the public dole at the same time).

All of this is a way of stating  the doctrine of negative rights, which is the basis of libertarianism. But negative rights can’t be applied universally if there are some holdouts who want others to give to them without having to give to others. (Of course, at that point you’ve lost the bleeding hearts and jingos, who want to make exceptions in the name of the “truly deserving” and “national pride.”)

Then comes the hard part. You must haggle about things like the necessity of law-enforcement and defense forces, and what they should be allowed to do, and how they should be paid for. And the extent to which government should override social custom, if at all, in an effort to ensure negative rights. And all the while, you are fending off the bleeding hearts and jingos, not to mention the pseudo-libertarians who believe that liberty is something that “just happens” without the expenditure of blood, sweat, and tears.

And then you come to the question of open borders. Which, some would say, must be a good thing, because all God’s children have negative rights. Or do they? Negative rights cannot be be honored except through mutual recognition backed by strong enforcement. Therefore, it is eminently reasonable to say that a regime that honors negative rights can enforce them only for those persons who are bound to honor that regime and help pay for its defense. (The implication of this statement for the rightful home of leftist peaceniks I defer to a future post.)

After all of that, I am left with the strong feeling that there is nothing natural about “natural rights,” and a lot that is natural about the messy process of defining and securing rights.

Perhaps Sandefur will deign to address these matters in the comment thread for Kerr’s post, inasmuch as his blog seems closed to comments. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s a matter of personal preference; perhaps even a “natural right.” It’s a right of which I avail myself, being of the view that my blog is like my house, and I’m very picky about who enters it.

Related posts:
Parsing Political Philosophy
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
The Devolution of American Politics from Wisdom to Opportunism
Goodbye, Mr. Pitts
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Unreality of Objectivism
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
The Left
More about Consequentialism
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism

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