Saturday, August 9, 2008

“Conflicts” of Rights

It is common for proponents of proposals that would violate property rights to present the issue as a conflict between the rights of those on the opposing sides of the issue. Such claims are naïve at best, and demonstrate a serious misunderstanding about rights.

Rights are a sanction to act without interference from others. The mutual rights of others prevents you from interfering with their actions. Rights are not a license to do anything one desires. If this were the case, there would be a conflict between the rights of individuals.

Consider bans on smoking in bars and restaurants. Those in favor of such bans argue that their rights are violated when they are subjected to second-hand smoke, and thus such bans are appropriate. But such arguments ignore the meaning of rights, as well as the fact that such bans are in fact a violation of the legitimate rights of the property owners.

Rights pertain to action and the consequences of those actions. Rights are not a guarantee that one’s actions will have the desired results, only that one may take those actions.

In the case of smoking, individuals are free to patronize an establishment or take their business elsewhere. If an individual objects to a smoky environment, he can patronize bars that do not allow smoking or stay at home. Each individual can choose for himself and act accordingly.

This freedom of choice applies to bars as well. The owner has the right to determine and set whatever rules he chooses regarding the use of his property. If he wishes to ban smoking, he should be free to do so. If he wishes to mandate smoking among his patrons, he should be free to do so. The choices of consumers will determine if his rules are acceptable or not—he will succeed or fail.

Unfortunately, many bar owners argue for widespread bans as a way to “level the playing field”. They fear that if they ban smoking in their establishment, they will be at a competitive disadvantage. Their solution is to enact a prohibition on everyone, rather than allow owners and patrons alike to make choices based on their personal values.

The alleged conflicts arise when government intervenes in the choices of individuals. When government intervenes, the choices of some individuals are reduced or eliminated. Which means, the choices of some are imposed upon all.

As Ayn Rand wrote:

A right cannot be violated except by physical force. One man cannot deprive
another of his life, nor enslave him, nor forbid him to pursue his happiness,
except by using force against him. Whenever a man is made to act without his own
free, personal, individual, voluntary consent—his right has been violated.

Therefore, we can draw a clear-cut division between the rights of one
man and those of another. It is an objective division—not subject to differences
of opinion, nor to majority decision, nor to the arbitrary decree of society. No
man has the right to initiate the use of physical force against another
A bar owner cannot force patrons into his business. His door is open to those who choose to enter, subject to whatever conditions he imposes. Those who do not like those conditions can go elsewhere. In other words, he initiates force against nobody.

To impose certain conditions upon him however, is an initiation of force. Banning smoking for instance, prohibits him from acting according to his own voluntary, independent judgment. At the same time, it prohibits consumers from acting according to their own voluntary, independent judgment.

Recognizing the rights of each individual eliminates such perceived conflicts. In a free society, there are no conflicts of rights. Each individual is permitted to choose for himself and act accordingly. Business owners can choose what products or services they offer, and consumers can choose which businesses they will patronize.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

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