December 5, 2013

Redefining Liberty and Rights at Calvinist International

By In C.Jay Engel

I have written on The Calvinist International before.  I indicated that I would get around to saying more.  This post is “more.”

In the previous post, I noted that they were not big fans of capitalism.  They deny that free-market trade benefits both parities.  They are under the misguided assumption that when the rich and the poor trade, the rich benefits and the poor loses out.  As capitalists in the tradition of Mises, we disagree on the basis that the poor man voluntarily gave up his good so that he could receive what was being offered to him.  Why did he do this?  Why do people trade?  Why do people act at all?

Because they think that by acting, their wants will be satisfied.  They expect to benefit.  They expect to profit.  If I trade $2.00 for a slice of pizza, the pizza is valued at a higher amount to me than the two dollars in my hand.  If I receive what is valued higher based on my subjective preference, I have made a profit.

But that is all economics.  That is all value free.  Nothing in that argument indicated that it was ethical to trade, or ethical to buy pizza.

But today at The Calvinist International, we got an opportunity to read about some political theory and an understanding of rights and liberty.  Now, I will admit that the meat of the article was a quote they took from outside the site.  Perhaps, they thought it was a great piece, but they don’t necessarily endorse it.  Since I assume that they generally liked the quote, otherwise they would have said so, I will comment on it as if it was their own.

The post was called: “The Morally Preferable Form of Liberty.”  It began by stating that libertarians distinguish between positive and negative rights.  A positive right would be: “Every individual has a right to health care.”  A negative right would be:  “Every individual has the right to his property.”  A positive right indicates that an individual has the right to something that was previously not owned by that individual.  A negative right means that an individual has the right to not have his person or property interfered with by someone else, without the individual’s consent.  This is good.  The article was correct in noting that libertarians hold to this distinction.  The article is also correct in noting that the libertarian believes that negative rights are legitimate but positive rights are not.

However, the article disapproves of the libertarian basing a political theory on this belief.  Why? There is, allegedly, a fatal flaw.  The claimed fatal flaw is this: the distinction between positive and negative rights is problematic.  Let us look at the argument provided and then attempt to refute it.

The argument is based on a scenario between rich and poor.  Classic!  I don’t mean to take his argument lightly, but one gets mightily suspicious when the same principles of justice do not apply between rich/rich and rich/poor.  But regardless, we have been given a scenario to consider.  So let it be considered.

In this situation, the rich man has more than enough and the poor man does not have enough.  The libertarian says that the rich are not legally obligated to give money to the poor.  What does “legally obligated” mean?  It means that there is a government-inflicted consequence if the rich man does not act in the right way.  The libertarian thinks that this government inflicted consequence should not be present.  Any transfer of wealth should not taken place as a result of coercion.  The author of the article, however, will disagree with the libertarian.

He will disagree on the basis that the poor man’s liberty is being breached.  Here is the argument put forth by the author:

In fact, however, the liberty of the poor is at stake in such conflict situations. What is at stake is the liberty of the poor not to be interfered with in taking from the surplus possessions of the rich what is necessary to satisfy their basic needs.

Now, make sure you are following closely here, usually (when coming from most leftists) the argument on behalf of the poor man’s liberty is this: the poor man’s positive rights (the right to that which was not previously his) are being ignored.  But our author actually is making the opposite case.  His argument, if you read it carefully, is this: the poor man’s negative rights (the rights which he is born with and that no one may take away) are being breached.  The liberty, we are told, is the right “not to be interfered with in taking….”  Put another way, the argument is this: Poor people have a right to steal from those who have too much.  Is stealing a right?  And who decides whether someone has too much?  The poor person?  The author of the article?  The State itself?

If you did not understand that, read it again.

Now, the author notes that libertarians deny that this right (to steal) exists.  And I should say so!  The author then ponders: “But how can they justify such a denial?”  Good question.  How about this: “Thou shall not steal.”

He writes: “As this liberty of the poor has been specified, it is not a positive right to receive something but a negative right of noninterference.”  Yes, I have indicated this above.  Noninterference.  This is the doctrine that anybody can do whatever they want (so long as they think it is justified) and it is actually wrong to interfere with them.  Should all men be equal under the law?  Samuel Rutherford wrote a book called Lex, Rex in 1644.  Lex, Rex (the Law is King) meant that the Law precedes the ruler.  That is, the ruler is not above the law, but rather, the law is above every single person, including the king.  The author of the article at The Calvinist International disagrees.  The law is not above every person.  Certain classes of people are above the law.  It is odd that such a doctrine is put forth at a site which includes the name of the great Reformed leader John Calvin.

The author then writes:

Clearly, what libertarians must do is recognize the existence of such a liberty [right to take] and then claim that it conflicts with other liberties of the rich.

Well, I “must” not do this at all.  It is outlandish.  It is anti-Biblical.  If it did exist, would it “conflict with other liberties of the rich”?  The problem with this formulation is that it assumes that there is a separate category of “liberties for the rich.”  The truth of the matter though, is that there are only “liberties of the human being.”  They apply to the rich, yes.  But they also apply to the poor.  And the Christian and Muslim and Mormon.  And Black and White and Red.  Rights and liberties and justice and law are not applied differently to different people groups or social classes.  Lex, Rex.  

He ends with this:

We can either say that the rich should have the liberty not to be interfered with in using their surplus resources for luxury purposes, or we can say that the poor should have the liberty not to be interfered with in taking from the rich what they require to meet their basic needs. If we choose one liberty, we must reject the other. What needs to be determined, therefore, is which liberty is morally preferable: the liberty of the rich or the liberty of the poor.

Translation: we can either say that one group of people has the liberty to protect their property or we can say that another group of people have the liberty to steal the first group’s property.

What needs to be determined is what is Just: protection of property or legalized plunder.  Phrases like “morally preferable” represent the real “fatal flaw” in this article.  Because what is Right, what is Just, is not dependent on what is “preferable.”  This is moral relativism at its worst.

 

 

 

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com