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Thinking about rights again... When I first started to post about… - Sally's Journal
October 12th, 2005
11:19 pm

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Thinking about rights again...

When I first started to post about the idea of rights, I did the thought experiment of what it was reasonable to expect if you were dumped on a deserted island / planet in outer space on your own. And decided that there wasn't any natural right to health care, a house, food, etc, because they weren't there for effort-free taking. But maybe there was a right not to be killed, etc, because your life was what you had. I think I concluded something that I thought was deeply meaningful at the time, that there were (a very few) natural rights, like the right to life, and lots and lots of social rights, like housing and healthcare, that arn't fundamental or "god given" or whatever, but just come from our contract with the society in which we live.

The thing that is confusing me now is land. Being impoverished and house-jealous, the idea of "a place to call my own" is one that's praying on my mind. Going back to me alone on our hypothetical island, while I wouldn't have a natural right for someone else to come along and feed me and build me a house, maybe I would have a natural right to eat the coconuts on the tree, build a tiki hut out of palm leaves for myself etc.

And if there were two of us on the island, if we were trying to do what was Right and Fair and Proper, we would be entitled to half the island each to try and survive.

Of course, this goes wrong in some interesting ways. If the island can feed 4 people, and there are 5 of you, and you all take your right to one fifth of the island, you all starve to death. That's not good. Also, planets, like people, have natural variation. You could divide the land up equally, but then someone would have a grove of pinapple trees, and some less lucky sod would have a barren smelly swamp. Then again, some people have great intelligence, and some people are dumb. The unfairness of natural variation is unfair, but natural...

The Earth didn't originally belong to anyone. People can work for things that wouldn't otherwise exist, be it food, or clothing, or houses, or medicine, or computers, and there is no natural right to these because they take effort, and if there isn't enough, then the people who put the effort in should get them. But people without land of their own do not have ground in which to grow their food, rocks to quarry and timber to fell to make their houses...

I'm not sure what the conclusion of this rather mad chain of reasoning is. That being born on the planet gives you a natural right to your share of it?

Sadly, this seems completely impractical. If John and Jane, and Sam and Sadie live on their island, and have half each, but then Sam and Sadie have 10 kids, what happens? Should John and Jane lose 5/7 s of their land because Sam and Sadie wanted to stupidly promote their own genes? What if the island can only feed 6 people and by doing this they will all starve? Also, the "things people have worked for" can be tied up to the land. It's one thing saying that we are all equal and should have our own chance to forge the wilderness. But what if John has turned his island into fields of wheat, and another castaway Fred turns up? Fred might have equal rights to the land, but the wheat is the product of John's hard work, and should belong to John...

I appear to be turning into a communist romantic in my old age. But I just want a chance. I could till the land, and farm, and build a house, and I am keen and clever and would make a good go of it. But all the land, and the bricks, and the wood belong to people, (and not to the government, to be used wisely for the good of the people and carefully conserved and managed, but to private individuals, who are out to make as much money as they can). And I'm not sure why they have a right to these fruits of the earth that I do not...

Wonder what the answer is?

I suppose this longing for land of ones own, to deal with raw nature instead of wheedling from greedy men what is yours by birthright, is what lead people to America. Here's to the Moon...

[This was all sparked by a debate about inheritance tax, for those of you who like to know where I get these mad ideas from. No, I'm not sure what the link was now, either]

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Comments
 
From:cjp39
Date:October 12th, 2005 11:04 pm (UTC)
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They have the "right" of widespread acceptance, that crazy currency that has us all genuinely convinced that a small stack of oddly-coloured wood pulp can be reasonably exchanged for, say, a house.
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From:atreic
Date:October 13th, 2005 08:11 am (UTC)
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Yes, but people don't get given a lump of money any more than they get given a lump of land.
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From:the_alchemist
Date:October 12th, 2005 11:07 pm (UTC)
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If the island can feed 4 people, and there are 5 of you, and you all take your right to one fifth of the island, you all starve to death. That's not good.

To be fair, if the island can only feed four and there are 5 of you, whatever happens is not good.

I used to long for somewhere of my own, but now I consider the idea of 'owning' land an illusion. I'd still like a house I could stay in long term, and have decorated to my own tastes, but I would never believe it was actually 'mine' and no-one could take it from me. If nothing else, death would take it from me eventually - before then it would be at the mercy of fire, flood and compulsory purchase order...

Also I'd hate farming and tilling and building houses (particularly the last of these), and they'd be so time-consuming that I'd never get to do the things I enjoy.
From:nlj21
Date:October 12th, 2005 11:24 pm (UTC)
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To be fair, if the island can only feed four and there are 5 of you, whatever happens is not good.

I'm not so sure. If the island can feed four people then I would have thought 5 of your would be able to survive on a 25% diet reduction. I can't imagine a scenario where one extra person would cause everyone to starve.
From:nlj21
Date:October 12th, 2005 11:18 pm (UTC)
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Well here's my line of thought if you're interested:

1) I think there are good grounds to distribute the land among the people. Lots of the OT laws, and later the writings of the prophets, were about how the land was to be split evenly among the tribes. Standard disclaimers apply about the application of OT laws today, but there does seem to be a real and continued concern that the land should be fairly distribute between families.

2) I, and most people today, have absolutely no interest in owning a 4000m2 plot of the UK with which do provide for themselves.

3) So instead it seems reasonable to have a tax system through which to allocate the benefits of this 4000m2 plot of land rather rather than having each individual making their own way on their plot. Which makes me rather close to Henry George in thinking taxes on the unimproved value of land are good. Taxes on income and goods are bad.

4) For this to work it is people being more in a state rather than people being born on the planet which is important. The state being the effective organization by which such taxes or land distribution can operate.
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From:thecritick
Date:October 13th, 2005 07:21 am (UTC)
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I think the problem we're having in this debate is that we aren't farmers.

1) It takes generations of work to improve land for arable farming: draining, fencing, changing soil qualities, fertilizing, maintaining a crop rotation, etc. Thirty year leases aren't long enough to encourage people to do this and much of our agricultural progress has been based on much longer spells of ownership and people's plans to hand down land to their children.

2) If we accept that there is going to be economic specialization, then it is crazy to suppose that taxation should be based on the value of land. Land is an element of production for farmers, you can't farm without land. However, bakers, to take another example, need rather a lot less land to make bread on (and to live on). Why should farmers be taxed out of existence when bakers are untaxed either on their income or their goods?

3) By trying to construct alternative economic models based on utopian notions of equality a lot of people here seem to have entirely excluded specialization from their thinking which leads me to think that we would all end up grovelling around in a field, and I don't know about you, but my expensive Cambridge education has not equipped me as well for farming as most farmers' rather more practical experiences of seeing how it's done. What on earth makes atreic think that just because she's keen she'd be as good at farming as someone who's done it their whole life? And if people who are no good at farming take over farms, where is all the food going to come from? Specialization, people!
From:neonchameleon
Date:October 12th, 2005 11:20 pm (UTC)
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Hm...

First, the measure of a civilisation is how it treats its weakest members. Just because the promiscuous couple have been short sighted little bastards, doesn't mean that the children should be made to starve if there is any surplus. This is why you need some measure of welfare state/socialism.

Neither should the other couple be penalised for thrift and prudence or the farmer penalised for hard work. This is why communism won't work.

Part of me says that all land should belong to the government as the best representative of the people that there is. The government then leases the land out (probably in 30 year blocks, normally renewable at any point after 20 years are up unless there is a grave necessity for the land). Land letters then get to sublet and the rent for the 30 year period is based on the value of the land when the lease was first taken out, giving incentive to develop the land. Of course, this gives people incentive to build structures that will fall down after 29 years, but no system is perfect. (This also deals with most of the issue of taxes, taken as land rents - but this idea breaks down when you have cottage industries and telecommuting unless you also have a separate business tax).
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From:pjc50
Date:October 13th, 2005 01:21 am (UTC)
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The government then leases the land out ... sublet ...

Feudal system!
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From:fluffymark
Date:October 13th, 2005 12:08 am (UTC)
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These "rights" already don't exist for billions of people in the world. Take your "island" to be the whole Earth. This is far from being evenly shared amongst all the people - and those that have more than their share jealousy guard it with lots of laws to prevent the billions of starving and impverished people in grabbing it back from them. Inequality is the natural state of society. There is no right to life. :(
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From:atreic
Date:October 13th, 2005 08:11 am (UTC)
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Well, yes, this was the point of the analogy. But just because something isn't currently implimented doesn't mean it is wrong. And I think it's far more arguable that we should work to get people natural rights, like a fair shot at using their share of the earth to make their life OK, than it is that we strive to give them social rights like medicine, education, housing etc (although personally I believe that too). Which is odd, because people talk a lot about the latter, and I don't think I've ever come across people discussing the former.
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From:pjc50
Date:October 13th, 2005 01:31 am (UTC)
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Hmm. Are you aware of the history of land reform, in this country and elsewhere; the Highland Clearances;
[Error: Irreparable invalid markup ('<a [...] </a>') in entry. Owner must fix manually. Raw contents below.]

Hmm. Are you aware of the history of land reform, in this country and elsewhere; the Highland Clearances; <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelo_v._New_London"</a>Kelo v. New London</a>; Zimbabwe; Cambodia; the Kulaks; etc? Forcible land reallocation by the state has killed many more people this century than nuclear weapons have. It is very important to examine why.

I'm interested to know why you think the state is better at resource allocation than private individuals or firms transacting in a market for money. What economic evidence do you base this view on?
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From:atreic
Date:October 13th, 2005 08:27 am (UTC)
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Historical evidence and a knowledge of economics? Next you'll be wanting facts, and from there it's a short step to the moon on a stick!

My gut, idealistic instinct, is to think that the state will do things with the aim to make life better for all in the country, whereas private individuals are motivated to make their lives better. So a state owned quarry would charge for bricks the cost it took to make the bricks and pay their skilled brick labourors a comfortable wage, whereas a private quarry would charge as much for bricks as it felt it could get away with if everyone wanted bricks, and then put most of that money into the back pockets of the people in charge, rather than the brick makers.
From:ex_elanor998
Date:October 13th, 2005 07:31 am (UTC)
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*waves* Just letting you know I've friended you. We only met once, but I might need to borrow your maths brains at some point if that's ok.
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From:atreic
Date:October 13th, 2005 08:06 am (UTC)
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Hello! You're more than welcome to what little of my maths brain remains. Although if you're really searching for mathematical genius I'd recommend simont :-)
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From:simont
Date:October 13th, 2005 08:38 am (UTC)
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I've never been totally convinced by the concept of rights as a basis for generalised morality. They suffer from all sorts of problems of this type: you can be deprived of your rights without anyone having to commit a moral fault, rights frequently conflict with one another (your five people on a four-person island), and also it's hard to draw a line between unacceptably depriving someone of their rights and not doing so. (For example, some people will consider it an attack on their freedom of speech if you so much as criticise something they said after they said it. They're wrong, of course, but when you get into questions like choosing not to employ the same person to write another column for your paper, the dividing line gets a bit murkier.)

I'm generally of the opinion that rights language is a good thing to use in cases of genuine and obvious oppression. Women's rights and black rights, to name two obvious examples, are things which the people in question were entirely justified in shouting about. Rights language is very black and white (um, as it were) and encourages people to think in simple moral absolutes, and therefore it works well in cases of clear wrongdoing, when the situation really is morally that simple. However, when there isn't a case of genuine and obvious oppression going on, rights language has a tendency to oversimplify and hide problems, and generally I feel that other bases for morality such as the "could you be reasonably expected to" test are more likely to yield generally good results without barking mad corner cases.
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From:the_alchemist
Date:October 13th, 2005 09:45 am (UTC)
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I agree with your last paragraph, and certainly don't think there's anything like "natural rights".


They're wrong, of course, but when you get into questions like choosing not to employ the same person to write another column for your paper, the dividing line gets a bit murkier...

Does it really? Freedom of speech isn't the same as freedom to be published by someone else, otherwise it would be compulsory for newspapers to publish all the letters they receive. Indeed most newspapers get angry letters saying "because you didn't publish that thing I sent you before you're restricting my freedom of speech!" Are you suggesting those letter-writers are something other than completely wrong and foolish?
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From:mair_aw
Date:October 13th, 2005 09:25 am (UTC)
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hm? what do you mean by a "natural" right?
From:feanelwa
Date:October 13th, 2005 09:56 am (UTC)
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[haven't read all the comments yet]
If there are five of you and the island can only feed four, you milk the cows, feed the chickens and then the five of you get together and think of a way to make it feed five instead of fighting over picket fences.
From:senji
Date:October 13th, 2005 12:10 pm (UTC)
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And if there is no answer?
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Expand
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From:aldabra
Date:October 13th, 2005 10:51 am (UTC)
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I think rights talk is really a way of talking about duties. "X has a right to food" means "everyone has a duty to ensure X is fed". If there's only one of you on the island, you're isolated from everyone who could be said to have a duty towards you, and so it makes no sense to talk of you having rights.

"Human rights" means "things we think we should leave nobody without." We think that includes being enslaved, being groundlessly killed, starving in the midst of plenty, dying of unwanted childbirth when condoms cost fractions of a penny to make, &c. As society gets richer we start including shelter and education and whatnot.

But it's all about social interaction. If the tribe on your island thinks you don't have a human right not to be eaten you're in trouble unless someone agrees with you enough to rescue you.
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From:robert_jones
Date:October 15th, 2005 03:51 pm (UTC)
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"X has a right to food" means "everyone has a duty to ensure X is fed".

It seems to me that "everyone" here needs some explanation. Suppose that every UK citizen has a right to sufficient food. I don't think that anyone would claim that I personally have a duty to ensure that they are all fed. I couldn't do it. The duty is clearly a collective rather than an individual one. It means we as a society have a duty to ensure they are all fed. In practice this means it falls to the government.

With negative rights however, such as the right not to be killed, we do mean that every person individually has a duty not to kill.
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From:naath
Date:October 13th, 2005 06:34 pm (UTC)
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"Rights" are stupid, "inalianable right" even more so. You have the right to nothing, not even the life you have - at any moment a lion or a virus or a guy-with-a-gun could come allong and take it and yes, you would be annoyed (if there's an after life to be annoyed in) and you would be justified but you have no 'right' to not get killed.

Rights come from Responsibilities, they are part of a Contract 'I will not kill people and thus people will not kill me', 'I will sign up to your tax system and let you police me so that people will not kill me'... different systems give different rights in return for different responsibilities - it would be nice to be able to pick our system, but there is no reason that we should be able to.

The only real Right that you have that no one can take (yet) is your right to think the way you chose, even if you can't talk about it.

I like rights, I like having the benefits of society, I am more than willing to pay the price that the government currently charges for those benefits. There are situations I can imagine in which I would give up my life or liberty in order to attempt to secure those benefits for me/others. But that is not to suggest that any person has, inherantly, the right to anything.

There are a large number of things that "We" believe that 'all people' should have - this is because the "we" that wrote these things down doesn't like people to suffer. Most of these things are things that I think that people need and that we should attempt to provide people with because we should be nice to other people. I'm not saying that we shouldn't do this... just that to say that any of them are 'natural rights' is daft.

Also, if you are on a island on your own then you get your own damn food. You have no 'right to food' - that would imply that someone should give it to you. You might have the ablitiy to get food and to prevent others from taking it from you - in which case you have luck or good training on your side and should clearly use them.
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From:robert_jones
Date:October 15th, 2005 03:57 pm (UTC)
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I rather think that if two of you were stranded on a desert island, you would be advised to treat the whole island as your joint domain and cooperate in order to survive.

Also, if a group of people receive a windfall, then there it is fair to distribute it evenly between them. If the population of the UK were refugees from an alien civilisation and we had just landed here, it would be fair to divide the benefits of the land (though not necessarily the physical land itself for the reason given above) equally between us. But we're not, so we don't.

I would be interested to know what you said about Inheritance Tax. It's one of my pet topics.
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From:robert_jones
Date:October 15th, 2005 04:02 pm (UTC)
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To expand on the second paragraph above, suppose that we have divided the island equally between us. You work hard and produce something (GIN perhaps) from your half which I want. But I am lazy or incompetent and have failed to produce anything you want. So I offer you a piece of my land in exchange for GIN. Now you have more than half the island. Is this unfair?
From:emarkienna
Date:October 15th, 2005 10:12 pm (UTC)
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I've always thought that people should have the right to a small plot of land if they really wanted to live a subsistence lifestyle, but I don't think that would be useful to many people anyway. I'm not sure how much a small plot of land to live in would actually cost? Presumably the excessive cost of housing comes from the lack of houses, rather than the lack on land (or raw materials)..? And as you say, we don't have a right to have a house built for us.

I agree with you that the big problem with any idea of sharing things equally is what to do when new people are born.
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