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Basic Rights and Meta-Rights

DECEMBER 01, 1989 by WILLIAM B. IRVINE

Professor Irvine teaches philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

People are generally familiar with what might be called our basic rights. These include our economic rights, such as our right to own property and our right to start a business, and our political rights, such as our right to free speech and our right to life. Fewer people are aware of what might be cared our meta-rights. These are rights we have with respect to our basic rights; they include, most importantly, our right to waive or transfer our basic rights.

Suppose, for example, that I own a car, but that I am no longer satisfied with it. If I trade it in on a new model, I am voluntarily exchanging my property right in the car for a property right in a new car; in so doing, I am exercising my meta-right to transfer my property right in my car. Similarly, when I apply for a job, my prospective employer might tell me that he will hire me only if I sign a document stating that I won’t divulge a trade secret. What this employer is asking me to do is to waive certain aspects of my right of free speech; and if I accept the employment offer, I will be exercising my meta-right to waive the basic right in question.

Although these meta-rights are less well known than our basic rights, a case can be made that the preservation of our meta-rights is vital to our economic and political well-being; for unless we have the meta-right to waive or transfer our basic rights, then these basic rights are much less valuable than they otherwise would be.

To see why I say this, imagine for a moment a world without the meta-rights described above. Imagine a world in which you could own things, but could never waive or transfer your ownership. In such a world, it is not at all clear how I could come to own a car (unless I built it myself—but where would I obtain the materials from which to build it?). And once I had a car, I would be stuck with it for life. I could never trade it in. I couldn’t give it away. I couldn’t even “junk” it.

It is clear that my ownership right in a car is much more valuable if, besides this basic right, I also possess the meta-right to trade or sell the car to others. For then my car, besides having value in terms of the transportation it provides me, has value in terms of the other things (e.g., other cars or cash) that I can trade it for. In having the meta-right to transfer ownership of my car, i gain the potential ownership rights to any number of useful things.

Or imagine a world in which I could not waive any of my political rights. In such a world I would presumably become unemployable, for as soon as my boss tried to tell me what to do, wouldn’t he be infringing upon my right to self-determination, a basic right which, in the world described, I couldn’t waive?

Even my right to life is more valuable if I have the meta-right to waive this basic right. Those who would deprive me of my recta-right to waive my right to life have done me a great disservice: They have transformed my right to live into a duty to remain alive.

Few people, one assumes, would be willing to live in a world in which people possessed the full complement of basic rights, but lacked the above-described meta-rights. It sounds a bit paradoxical, but one of the things that contributes most to the value of our basic rights is our ability to waive and transfer them. In short, basic rights are worth having largely because we can relinquish them.

This is a point that many people—and in particular, many politicians—fail to realize. These politicians may stand firm in their support of our basic rights (our basic, political rights, if not our basic economic rights), while at the same time chiseling away at our meta-rights.

Thus, a politician who would never dream of taking away someone’s apartment building (and thus violating his basic right to own property) might nevertheless advocate passing laws that limit the amount of rent the building owner can charge or laws that prevent the building owner from converting his apartments into condominiums. Such laws do not deprive the building owner of his property, but they do restrict what he can do with it; and because they interfere with the owner’s ability to waive and transfer his property rights, they interfere with his meta-rights.

In the above example, we see how by depriving a person of his meta-rights, we lessen the value of his basic rights: Once laws are passed restricting what the building owner may do with his property, the market value of his apartment building is likely to fall.

Along these same lines, when politicians place limits on my ability to enter into contracts with others, they are depriving me of some of my meta-rights since they are interfering with my ability to contract away my basic rights. And when politicians impose restrictions on international trade, they are depriving me of some of my meta-rights since they are making it harder for me to exchange property with people in other countries.

Anyone who values rights, then, will not want his list of most valued rights to end where it traditionally does, viz., with basic economic and political rights. For these rights, although valuable, derive much of their value from the meta-rights we have with respect to them. Furthermore, anyone who values his rights will defend his meta-rights at least as vigorously as he defends his basic rights; for he will realize that a basic right which cannot be relinquished is in many cases a right not worth having.

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December 1989

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