Mises Wire

The Concise Fundamentals of “Human Rights”

A thorough review of the existing literature on human rights finds a problem: it takes a book or lengthy chapter to describe them. Because of the complexity, many people misconstrue rights versus other human social engagements, such as obligations, promises, relationships, or privileges. This article summarizes an accurate but concise description of human rights theory, with a few examples, in a more readily accessible fashion that won’t require hefty research or a philosophy degree.

What are “rights”?

When two or more humans desire simultaneous usage of a naturally scarce resource, how is this predicament resolved? By the creation of normative rights. Rights convert the objective, immediate act of possessing something to an exclusive, normative control of its usage amongst other humans throughout some defined time duration. Because scarcity is an integral fact of all matter, normative principles propagate cooperative and peaceful human interactions.

From where do rights originate?

All rights originate from Natural Law: the unwritten and instinctually understood control principles, by which all living organisms containing a minimum threshold of cognitive ability abide. For instance, when a bird or squirrel or dog uses force to protect themselves or their nest/home, it is understood as visceral instinct. Additional details on Natural Law from various perspectives can be found in the works of: Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Luis de Molina, Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Frederic Bastiat, Lysander Spooner, and Richard Tuck.

What is the difference between human rights and property rights?

No difference: all human rights are property rights. One’s body is the epitome of property ownership. Each individual possesses full and direct control over the decisions made pertaining to their own physical body. Unless direct mind control is invented, personal bodily control can only be hampered indirectly by external forces (e.g. given environmental and anthropological factors outside of that body) but not transferred.

Outside of the physical body, how are property rights created and transferred?

  1. By original title: Property rights are created by homesteading (i.e. first use). Homesteading is when a human deliberately acts upon previously-unowned resources to create something as original title (i.e. rightful claim) of property.
  2. By subsidiary title: Property rights can be transferred via voluntary exchange. The only prerequisite of voluntary exchange is that the property owner gave consent to transfer ownership rights to a different person or group, and the new owner gave consent in accepting that new property ownership.
  3. By restitution: A reputable arbitrator has deemed that a property rights violation has occurred, and the victim is owed the transfer of property of proportional value from the culprit as part of the restitution.

What are the foundational aspects of property rights?

  1. Scarcity. There must be a limited supply in time and/or space.
  2. Exclusivity. An identifiable person or group has exclusive control of decision-making in the property’s usage.
  3. Discernible boundaries. Other humans, with sufficient ‘rational agency’ (minimum age and cognition sufficient to rationally communicate an argument with another human), must be able to identify the boundary without much effort.

Why are human rights necessary at all?

  1. Safety: All conflict stems from violations of property rights or the inadequate foundations of property right claims (scarcity, exclusivity, boundaries). If a person trespasses on another’s supposed ‘property’ without discernible borders to that property, conflict will arise on who is the justified owner/controller of such property. If all property within a group of two or more humans (i.e. society) contains the basic foundations of scarcity, exclusivity, and boundaries, then conflict arises only by violating those established property rights. And with the foundations of property ownership rights presumably met, the conflict resolution can be more easily and peacefully adjudicated via either (a) an honest discussion between the two conflicting parties, or (b) a neutral arbitrator participating in the frank discussion between the two conflicting parties and providing recommendations.
  2. Conserve scarce resources: Because scarce resources are limited, it is of human benefit to prevent their over-usage or under-usage. A property owner has exclusive authority to decide on the usage of that property. A property owner has incentive to use their property in a manner that conserves their property’s value, and thereby preventing an owner’s marginal loss. Humans’ natural, strong inclination to conserve their assets against loss is called ‘loss aversion’. Unowned property is susceptible to the negative consequences of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons.’
  3. Answer the question: “What are you ‘justified’ to protect with coercion if necessary?” In a hypothetical utopia of immortal life, unlimited sustenance, perfect environment, and no violent actions, there would be no necessity for coercion. Unfortunately, that world does not exist. Property rights help define when coercion (force) is necessary or justified in the real world.

How can a group possess property rights?

Some property can meet the three foundational aspects of property rights and still be owned by more than a single individual. A family can have joint title ownership of a house or business. A corporation can have title ownership of a building or product. The government can have title ownership of a building or land. Typically, in group ownership, there is a contract of how that property can be used and what authority figures need to be contacted for altering that contract.

What are NOT property rights (or human rights)?

  1. Examples of true vs. false property claims:
  2. All air cannot be owned. But once established within an exclusive human-created boundary (homesteaded or exchanged), it can be. For example, if an airport wants to own the airspace above its airport, it can establish specific boundaries of certain height and range, designated by archived title and/or various mixes of technology and structure such as walls, balloons, towers, lights, radio frequencies, patrols, etc.
  3. All water cannot be owned. But once established within an exclusive human-created boundary, it can be. For example, if a preservation company wants to own a section of a river, it can establish specific boundaries, designated by archived title and/or various mixes of technology and structure such as walls, signs, towers, lights, radio frequencies, patrols, etc. And the preservation company can thus control the inputs and outputs and usage of that section of river within their discernible borders.
  4. Huge swaths of territory (land, water, planets, etc.) cannot be owned via property rights by decree alone. The prospective owner would need to follow the homesteading policy, enact discernable boundaries, and establish exclusive control over the island’s usage decisions before property rights are granted and respected.
  5. So long as a human possesses ‘rational agency’ and direct control over their body’s actions, another person cannot possess property rights over any other person. A supposed ‘slave owner’ might try to claim a slave as ‘property,’ but without exclusive control of all decision-making of that individual body, it is nothing but an arbitrary decree. Some collectivists will not comprehend the difference between slavery and voluntary employment, so that example is given next.
  6. Employee-employer. Because an individual owns their body, they can make voluntary contracts to sell their time or labor. When an employer hires someone in exchange for their specified labor hours, there is a contract describing the circumstances of that labor, what property can be utilized in exercising that labor, and who will own the products or other remuneration from that labor. The employer typically provides company property as a productive machine for the laborer to use that would otherwise be unavailable to the laborer by themselves (e.g. capital). So long as both the employer and the laborer both consent to the contract, there is no violation of property rights for the laborer or the employer.
  7. Rights versus privileges: Positive rights (privileges) require external human action to fulfill, such as healthcare, housing, food, education, police/military defense, childcare, and intellectual property (IP) laws. Whichever semantics are used to describe these privileges of human interaction, they do not meet the foundational aspects of property rights (or thus human rights) – scarcity, exclusive control, boundaries. Positive rights actually violate property rights, if enforced.
  8. Intellectual Property (IP) laws can be summarized as coercive protection of ideas, which is a privilege. Ideas are not scarce. Ideas cannot be controlled exclusively by a single owner; two or more people can think of any idea. Ideas cannot be given discernable boundaries to prevent trespassing unto them. Today, there are existing consensual methods to protect inviolable ideas through contracts between two parties, but they do not affect anyone outside of that contract. The IP debate frequently gets confused with utilitarian arguments that fail to meet the foundational aspects of property rights. Additional information on IP laws and their relation to property rights can be found in the works of: Michele Boldrin, David Levine, and Stephan Kinsella.
  9. Additional nuanced perspectives on speculative cases of property rights beyond the scope of these fundamentals can be found in the works of: Murray Rothbard, Hans Hermann Hoppe, Stephan Kinsella, Boudewijn Bouckaert, Lukasz Dominiak, and Randy E. Barnett.
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