Envision Spokane’s “Bill of Frights”
When I stepped out onto my front porch to collect the mail a few days ago I discovered a 3-part flyer wedged in the screen door. An outfit called “Envision Spokane” is promoting an amendment to the Spokane City Charter to add what they describe as a “Community Bill of Rights” to that document. It may be found here.
As a philosopher with a long-standing interest in social/political and moral philosophy, and in the topic of rights in particular, the flyer naturally grabbed my attention. Perhaps someone had decided it was time to lay some restraints on the political zealots and overreaching bureaucrats at City Hall.
But, alas — as I should have expected — the authors of the proposed “Community Bill of Rights” have no such intention. Instead, they advocate a massive expansion of the powers and reach of those zealots and bureaucrats, greatly enlarging the scope of their control over the lives of the people of this city.
As has become common in this post-Constitutional era, the ideologues of Envision Spokane (hereafter “ES”) have adopted the vocabulary of rights to lend moral camouflage to a call for a lavish menu of free lunches — all to be paid for, naturally, by the productive citizens of the city.
Needless to say, the authors of this document have no inkling of what a right — as that term has been understood throughout the history of law and moral philosophy, and was understood by the drafters of the Declaration of Independence and the US Bill of Rights — actually is.
A right is a simply a constraint upon action which one moral agent (a person) living in a social setting with other moral agents may invoke against those others. It bars them from acting, in their efforts to increase their own welfare, in ways which would injure or reduce the welfare of the agent who bears the right, by taking from her something she values and which she has acquired innocently.
But to which things, and what kinds of things, may persons claim rights? Well, to anything from which they derive enjoyment, benefit, or advantage and of which they have come into possession without having inflicted loss or injury on someone else. Most such goods are acquired by producing or discovering them, e.g., the artist who makes a painting has a right to the painting; the prospector who finds a gold nugget has a right to the nugget; the hunter who fashions a spear has a right to the spear; the farmer who plants and harvests a bushel of corn has a right to the corn; the first settler upon an acre of unowned, unused land acquires a right to the land. But each person is also in possession of various valuable things she brought with her into the world — e.g., her life, her body, her various talents and natural abilities. Those latter are the so-called “natural rights:” the rights to one’s natural possessions and to the exercise of one’s innate faculties. Like “common rights” — one’s rights to things acquired after one’s arrival in the world — they are also things the agent has gained without imposing injuries or losses on anyone else.
(Those interested a fuller explanation of the origin and basis of rights may wish to peruse “What the Heck are Rights?”, here).
A social setting offers great opportunities for cooperation and division and specialization of labor, and thus the possibility of great improvements in the welfare of all who participate. But, of course, it also offers tantalizing opportunities for predation and parasitism. The concept of rights evolved to establish a clear criterion for determining what belongs to whom — which things each person could claim as his own, which he could reserve for his own use, advantage, and benefit, and from which he could exclude others. A person’s rights mark those things he may freely use, enjoy, and control; others’ rights mark those things of which he must keep hands off. People in social settings erect governments to help them defend their rights against the inevitable predators and parasites — the muggers, pilferers and invaders who scheme to satisfy their desires by subjugating others or expropriating goods others have produced. They draft constitutions and Bills of Rights to constrain those governments — to prevent the government itself from becoming a predator.
Let’s look at some of Envision Spokane’s purported “rights” to see how closely they conform to this classical conception. Some of them are rather vague; it’s sometimes hard to tell just what is claimed.
“Right” #1: “Residents have the right to a healthy, locally-based economy, the right to have local monies reinvested locally, and the right to equal access to capital, credit, contracts, incentives and services when residents choose to own or operate a business.”
What is implied by the “right” to a “locally-based economy”? Does it imply that a property owner who wishes to lease or develop his property for use by a national chain may be forbidden to do so? That national chains may be denied business licenses? That such licenses may be challenged in court by “aggrieved persons,” as set forth in “Right” #11? That no one who is not a resident of the City may do business within it? What does this mean?
What of the “right to have local monies reinvested locally”? Whose monies would those be? Is my money “local money”? Is ES proposing that City Hall should have a say in how and where you and I invest our money?
“Equal access to capital and credit”? To whose capital, and credit from whom? Does this mean I can be compelled to invest my capital in a venture of which I don’t approve, or in whose promoters I have no confidence? Must I extend credit to persons I consider uncreditworthy? Isn’t that what led to the “subprime mortgage crisis” from which we’re all still reeling — demands by government upon lenders to extend credit to uncreditworthy borrowers?
This one suggests ES has subscribed to the “Organic Fallacy.” But we’ll get to that anon. It is amusing, however, that the ES authors can advocate all these impediments and restrictions upon economic activity, and then with a straight face declare that they desire a “healthy” economy.
“Right” #2: “Residents have the right to preventative medical and dental healthcare.”
This one clearly fails the definition of a “right” given above. No one can have a right to goods or services others must produce or provide; that would amount to a claim upon others’ time, talents, and efforts — things to which they have paradigm natural rights. Someone who claims a right to others’ time, talents, and efforts is declaring them to be his slaves — that they are bound to labor for his benefit. This one is a non-starter. One can have rights only to one’s own time, talents, efforts, and the products thereof, absent some contractual agreement between agents.
“Right” #3: “Residents have the right to housing, which shall include the right to a clean, safe, affordable, and well-maintained dwelling, the right to continue to reside within that dwelling, and the right to low-income housing stock sufficient to meet the needs of the low-income housing community. People and families may only be denied renting or buying of a dwelling for non-discriminatory reasons and may only be evicted from their residence if non-discriminatory causes exist for that removal.”
This one falls on the same grounds as the previous. Housing is a good which someone must produce. The only persons who can possibly have rights to any particular unit of housing are the persons who produced that unit — it is their property (property being anything to which one has a valid claim of right, i.e., that which is properly one’s own). Carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers, and other building craftsmen are no more the slaves of the State or “the public” than are doctors, nurses, and X-ray technicians. Neither are the investors who financed their projects. Nor are citizens at large. No other person can possibly have any claim of right upon the time, effort, talents, or other assets of any of those folks, absent some contractual agreement between them, or perhaps some proven tort. Their time, talents, and money, and the products thereof, are exclusively their own. And of course, since they have sole rights to their produced property, they have exclusive say regarding who else may use it and under what conditions.
“Right” #4: “Residents have the right to a healthy environment, which shall include the right to unpolluted air, water, soils, plants, and animals, the right to a climate unaltered by pollution emissions, the right to access non-polluting energy, and the right to be free from harmful chemical trespass.”
This one is the best of the bunch — one of two with an iota of plausibility. The atmosphere and public water supplies are “natural commons” — all persons have derived benefits and advantages from them since time immemorial, which means that all persons have equal rights to them. Thus no one may use them in such a way as to render them less useful or beneficial to others.
“Right” #5: “Ecosystems, including but not limited to, all groundwater systems, river systems, aquifers, soil, air, and populations of native plants and animals, have the right to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve. River systems have the right to flow and have water quality necessary to provide habitat for ecosystems and living creatures. Aquifers have the right to sustainable recharge, flow, and water quality.”
This one is badly confused (indeed, downright silly), and reveals the poor grasp the ES authors have upon the concept of “rights.” “Rights” is a moral notion, and is defined only for moral agents — for persons, or person-like creatures (perhaps even Martians) who can entertain the concept and its truth conditions (the criteria per which it is correctly applied), who are capable of recognizing other moral agents as such and of observing the constraints the concept entails. Soil, air, aquifers, etc., not being sentient systems remotely capable of harboring or acting upon the concept, cannot be sensibly said to “have rights.” The term is meaningless outside the context of a system of interacting moral agents. It makes no more sense to impute rights to soil and air that it does to attribute moods, thoughts, or daydreams to them.
What ES may have meant here is that persons have rights that the utility of those natural systems not be reduced or destroyed by malicious or negligent use. That would be true to the extent the systems in question are part of the “natural commons,” thus rendering this “right” equivalent to #4, above. But I suspect a bit of sophomoric, “greenie” Gaia worship has crept in here, with its attendant primitivism/animism.
(See, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animism)
“Right” #6: “Neighborhoods have the right, through their neighborhood councils, to determine their futures, which shall include the right to adopt and enforce legally binding neighborhood plans. The City of Spokane shall provide sufficient funding for these purposes.”
This one goes on to outline a mechanism by which neighborhoods may veto a development project if the neighborhood council determines that the project may “adversely affect the neighborhood.”
This one is as badly confused as the last, and for a similar reason. It also misunderstands the class of entities to which rights and other moral properties attach. Whereas #5 imputes rights to inanimate, insentient entities and processes, this one imputes them to groups. But groups of persons, not being moral agents per se but merely arbitrarily defined sets of them, have no rights (or any other moral properties) other than those which may be possessed by their several members. Rights attach to agents, to real, specific, identifiable persons, not to verbal constructs such as groups, not to inanimate objects. Hence if no resident of a neighborhood has a right that a certain parcel of property be developed or not developed in a certain way, then neither can any aggregation of those residents. Zero times one thousand is still zero. And if the neighbors individually lack such a right, then so must anyone who claims to represent them. An agent can have no more rights than his principal.
Residents of urban areas do have rights, of course, that new developments not reduce their welfare, such as by introducing unreasonable risks to health or safety or by creating a nuisance. But they can have no rights that others continue to use their own property as it has been used in the past, or that it be used in ways that satisfy the neighbors’, rather than the owner’s preferences. No person has any duty to devote any portion of his property to satisfying others’ desires and preferences.
Development regulations in urban areas present legitimate and difficult issues. Development may easily create a nuisance in a a given context; on the other hand, regulations originally conceived to forestall such nuisances (such as barring construction of rendering plants in residential neighborhoods) quickly evolve into schemes through which politicians confer free lunches on the voting public, or upon politically influential groups. Favorite tools are height bonuses, density bonuses, setback waivers, and the like. Politicians and bureaucrats devise arbitrary and often economically absurd restrictions on development because they allegedly mitigate “undesirable impacts” and are “in the public interest.” They then proceed to waive these restrictions if the property owner agrees to fork over a portion of his property for some public boon, or to finance a pet project the citizens of the community have been unwilling to underwrite with taxes. Thus do development regulations metamorphose into outright extortion schemes.
Living in an urban area entails living with the preferences, tastes, choices, and lifestyles of others, bizarre though some of those may be. Persons too intolerant to live with others’ decisions regarding the uses of their property should not be living in an urban setting.
“Right” #7: “Neighborhoods have the right to have growth-related infrastructure costs provided by new development.”
This one is plausible prima facie, but is too simple. First, of course, we must dispense with the notion that “neighborhoods” have rights. If there are any rights involved, they will be those of the residents of those neighborhoods — which may differ from one resident to the next. All of them indeed have rights not to be charged for infrastructure improvements from which they receive no benefit, which benefit only the new development. On the other hand, if a new development requires, say, installation of a new sewage pumping station and a new main, and the old equipment has deteriorated and would soon require replacement anyway, then the current residents as well as the new development will benefit from the improvement. Similarly for street improvements, sidewalk replacement, etc. In other words, in all cases the extent of benefits accruing to all affected property should be ascertained and the costs apportioned accordingly. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is not the only straw in the camel’s burden.
“Right” #8: “Workers have the right to be paid a living wage, and, if greater than a living wage, to be paid the prevailing wage on all private construction projects exceeding two million dollars in construction costs, and all publicly subsidized construction projects, within the City of Spokane.”
Similarly to items #2 and #3, this one is a blatant bid for a free lunch — a spurious claim of a “right” to others’ resources, to be extracted by force by the minions of the State. Like #6, it goes on to suggest specific language for enforcing this confiscatory scheme.
Of course, no person can plausibly claim a “right” that others pay him a certain price for his labor or for his products, or even that anyone else purchase his labor or products at all. Every person, on the contrary, has a natural right to do business with anyone willing to do business with him, and to decline to do business with any other person, and if he decides to do business with another person, to do so upon whatever terms to which the two of them can agree. Third parties have no say whatsoever in the matter. Tom can have no “right” to dictate the terms of cooperation between Dick and Harry; Dick can have no “right” that Harry hire him and pay a certain wage (perhaps while Tom holds a gun to Harry’s head).
The City may well decide to impose such a requirement on public projects or projects receiving public subsidies, if the citizens of the city prove willing to foot the costs of such a giveaway scheme. Most federal projects already impose an analogous requirement (Davis-Bacon). The public may abandon principles of fiscal prudence if it so desires and squander public money on any frivolities it pleases. But it may not interfere in private economic relations between consenting adults without violating bonafide rights all American governments were organized to protect.
This one, like the two following, is an old plank in the platforms of various labor organizations, some of which are apparently among the sponsors and organizers of Envision Spokane. So its appearance in the current document is no surprise.
“Right” #9: “Workers have the right to employer neutrality when unionizing and the right to be free from captive audience meetings in the workplace.”
Another organized labor plank, this one an egregious proposal to violate free speech. Clearly, an employer may perceive a union’s attempt to organize his employees as detrimental to his interests; just as clearly, in such a situation he has a perfect right — the natural right of free speech — to oppose those unionizing efforts by handing out flyers (just as Envision Spokane did), placing notices on company property, addressing employees on company time (for which he is paying), by placing ads in newspapers or other media — i.e., by any means by which any person in a free society may promote his or her cause. The notion that an employer should remain “neutral” — muzzled — while organized labor flacks proselytize his employees is so despotic and self-serving it is laughable. Some of ES’s organizers are in obvious need of a remedial course in Civil Rights 101.
“Right” #10: “Workers have the right to work as apprentices on all public, publicly subsidized, and private construction projects exceeding two million dollars in construction costs, under the Washington State Apprenticeship Training Program, and each contractor and subcontractor building those projects shall be required to use apprentices for a minimum of fifteen percent (15%) of the work performed on each project.”
Another spurious “right” that other persons do business with you, whether they wish to or not, whether they judge your proffered services to be worth paying for or not. Since each person already has an existing natural right to decide with whom he will do business, and under what conditions, this one fails immediately.
“Right” #11: “All rights recognized by this Charter are fundamental and inalienable, and the City of Spokane shall enforce these rights. Any person, neighborhood, or neighborhood council aggrieved by a violation of their rights, or any person seeking to enforce the rights of ecosystems, may enforce these rights. Enforcement actions shall be filed as civil actions in a court of competent jurisdiction, against any person or entity violating these rights, and sufficient legal and equitable relief shall be awarded to remedy the violation, including restoration of a damaged ecosystem. For purposes of enforcement, corporations and other business entities shall not be deemed to possess any legal rights, privileges, powers, or protections which would enable those entities to avoid the enforcement of these rights, or which would enable them to challenge or nullify these rights.”
Well, of course, if you are going to create a slew of phony “rights” which are transparently tickets for free lunches, then you’ll need an enlarged bureaucracy and expanded court system to handle the demand. And, of course, you’ll wish to hobble and neuter the cattle you plan to slaughter to feed all the jackals slinking in for the feast, so that they cannot resist or escape the attack. (Perhaps the ES organizers have overlooked that corporations and “business entities” are constituted of living, breathing persons — moral agents all — whose creativity, ideals and aspirations are embodied in the work they do and the projects they contemplate, and whose “pursuit of happiness” — not to mention time and money — are at stake in these depredations. Or perhaps they simply prefer to dehumanize them for rhetorical advantage).
To be sure, the precedents for this sort of despotism are now well established. This is, after all, the post-Constitutional Era, where the historical and and moral-theoretical basis of rights has been largely forgotten. Most people now assume that rights are artifacts of government, rather than being natural endowments of persons which governments are erected to protect (” . . . all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men . . .”). Rights, historically understood to impose limits upon government power, are now assumed to be products of it. Governments now routinely conjure “rights” from thin air, mainly in response to the demands of whichever interest groups the current crop of politicians depend upon for continuance in office. These ersatz rights are known as “fiat rights,” or “frights” — and they are the only sort of rights many people (most of them educated in State schools, of course) now believe exist.
For the most part the underlying motivators of demands like the instant one for creating, ex nihilo, new fiat rights are simple envy and greed — persons observe that others in their society possess advantages or assets exceeding or superior to their own, and like the common burglar or highwayman, contrive to seize, by force or stealth, some of that booty for themselves. But as Lysander Spooner observed, unlike the common highwayman, who at least has the courage to commit his own robberies, the envious of modern societies enlist the State, via the anonymity of the voting booth, to commit them on their behalf.
Most of them do, of course, see the need for at least a moral pretext for the thefts they contemplate. Hence the expropriation of the vocabulary of “rights.” Many, however, sincerely believe their depredations are justified — because they have succumbed to the “Organic Fallacy.”
This is the archaic notion that modern, civilized societies are akin to organisms, with each individual person a cell therein, all of whom are engaged in pursuit of a “common purpose” or “common good,” and in which each is entitled to an equal share of any benefits accruing to the “organism” as a whole. One clue that this fallacy is in play is the use of such collectivizing phrases phrases as “society’s wealth,” “the interests of society,” “as a member of society, everyone has a right to [fill in the blank] . . . .,” or, as in “Right” #1 above, “local monies.”
This belief is manifestly, empirically false. Modern, civilized societies are not organisms, not “big happy families,” not tribes. Any notion to the contrary is an atavism, a relic of the tribal heritage we humans share with all other primates, but which began to break down with the advent of civilized societies 10,000 years ago. Civilized societies are random collections of biologically, psychologically, and morally autonomous individuals who happen, by accident of birth, to occupy a common territory. Though most persons can find others within their society who share certain of their interests, there are no common interests — interests shared by all of their members — within them, and no common purposes. The only interests and purposes to be found in them are the interests and purposes of individuals, which differ from individual to individual. Each of those individuals is a moral agent sui generis with her own unique life to live, with her own interests, her own goals, and her own dreams (yes, even including business persons and investors in corporations). Nor, contrary to Rawls, is there or has there ever been any agreement among members of civilized societies to “share their fate”.
The concept of rights (along with formal law and moral philosophy in general) arose precisely in response to this change: as persons became individuated — as they began to perceive themselves as individuals rather than as exemplars of a tribal identity; as they began to distinguish and differentiate their own interests and well-being from those of others — they began to regard certain things as theirs, as their personal property, not as the collective property of the tribe or clan. The only constraint upon which things any individual could claim as his or her own was that the thing be acquired innocently — without inflicting loss or injury on someone else. Any wealth a person may thus manage to accumulate is his own wealth; it is not a part of “society’s wealth” over which he has somehow gained illegitimate control, and upon which envious others have some sort of prior or residual claims.
The 20th century witnessed an unending parade of murderous ideologies premised on the Organic Fallacy — the notion, in one guise or another, that the State, society, races, classes, etc., i.e., the tribe and its analogues and descendents, were the morally superior entities, to whom mere individuals must be subordinate and subservient — Marxism, fascism, numerous religious despotisms. Apparently the lessons of those destructive dystopias have yet to be learned.
ES and other advocates of fiat rights might keep in mind, however, that the value of fiat rights, like that of fiat money, must inevitably fall to zero. They too are subject to Say’s Law. As each new phony right enters the legal lexicon it cheapens real rights, by undermining their moral basis, until the ethical foundations of law and government have been utterly extinguished, and they become mere matters of “might makes right:” who is entitled to what becomes merely a matter of who can muster the most votes and thereby deploy the most guns. Several years ago an attitude/opinion survey of of teenage boys in Los Angeles revealed that a majority of them believed that “sex is a human need” to which boys “have a basic human right,” and therefore that “girls have a duty” to provide them with it. Per ES’s understanding of rights, their claim would be perfectly valid if they ever managed to round up enough votes to get it enacted.
(Note: The Bill of Frights was approved as to form by the City Council on July 13 and submitted to the County Auditor for signature verification. It will appear on the November ballot as Initiative 2009-2).