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Ethics / Psychology

Coercion and Rights

This post is part of the series Why Government?

Other posts in this series:

  1. Is Government Good?
  2. Community Assistance
  3. Coercion and Rights (Current)
  4. Government and Power

In the two previous posts I have shown that a common anarchist argument against taxes fails and that the community may morally obtain your property, even if you must be coerced to do so. So it is simple to show that coercion is sometimes permissible in the case of property rights. Governments also claim the right to (under some circumstances) confine someone forcibly, kill them, and regulate behaviour to some degree. Even though my previous argument shows that the government can sometimes override property rights, it does not show anything more than that. A more general argument is needed. Any right may be overridden by government if that right is dependent on another right and the exercise of the second right directly conflicts with the first right.

As human beings we all have certain natural rights. However, none of these rights are absolute. There are two ways in which these rights may not be absolute. The first is if one right exists because of another. For example, we have a right to free speech. Because of that right, we have a right to express our opinion on the Canadian government. In this case, our right to express ourselves on a particular topic is a particular case of our general right to free speech. The right to property exists because of our right to free expression (creativity), right to life and right to excellence. In either of these cases, the dependent right can never override the right that it is dependent on. This means that the right to express our opinion can never override the right to free speech. Neither can our property right override someone’ s right to life.

Some rights do not depend on others. The clearest case of such a right is the right to life. In fact, every other right depends on this one. It is therefore impermissible for any right at all to override this one. This means that freedom, creative expression and excellence may be overridden if those rights directly conflict with the right to life. The is the reason why it is legitimate for government to take your extra food away in order to feed your starving neighbors. This is what gives government the right to both regulate behaviour and confine people. Killing someone (intentionally) does override the right to life. Therefore, no right can justify that.

In fact, this argument does not allow for any situation in which one person’ s right to something may override another person’ s right to that same thing. So while the government may take your property to protect another’ s life, it may not take your property to protect another person’ s creative expression (ie. for their business). But there are some circumstances in which government claims that it may in fact do this. Three follow: the government may claim the right to make war or punish murderers with death, the government may claim the right to break up the land holdings of the excessively wealthy, and the government may claim the right to prohibit private manufacture of certain materials.

In each of these cases, the justification for doing these things are considerations of justice, not individual rights. War is just if the citizens of a country are being defended against an invasion. Execution of a convicted criminal is just if their crime involved a harm against someone else’ s life. Breaking up the land holdings of the excessively wealthy may be just if that land is given to private citizens justly. Banning the private production of certain materials (private nuclear weapons) is just because using such weapons morally requires the trust of the community (something that an individual does not have of necessity). In each of these cases, one right is restricted on the basis of another instance of that same right. Therefore, such things cannot be justified on the basis of rights at all. They must be justified on the basis of justice itself. If these rights can be overridden then there is a second way in which rights are not absolute one instance of a right may override another instance of that same right.

Proving that such rights may sometimes be overridden by government requires a brief consideration of the nature of justice. So I will save that for another post.

Continue reading this series:

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