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Rights and Externalities, or tl;dr

Posted March 1st, 2011 at 7:57 AM by Esper
Tags politics, rant

This wall of text was inspired by an article I read about a couple who wanted to act as foster parents, but were denied because of their views on homosexuality. The article seemed to be more sympathetic to the couple, which got me all rant-y.


As libertarians like to say: your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins, or however it goes. It’s a pretty simple idea and it makes sense. I rather like how simple it is, how it’s so ideal and, on the outside, so practical. Sadly, though, it often falters in real life. Let me explain.

Imagining two people on a plot of land willed to them by a dead relative who forgot to mention how much land to give each of them. Each want as much space as possible so it makes the most sense to divide it equally because giving too much to one person would surely be a detriment to the other. In this fairy tale-ish story it works fine until you bring in some of what my econ teacher would have called externalities.

Externalities are those things in economics that don’t traditionally get entered into the final cost of things despite having a tangible effect on the world. A good example is a factory which pollutes a river which adversely affects farmers downstream. There are no ill effects on the factory and its production because the damage floats out of its area. From some, now mostly outdated viewpoints there is no problem here since everyone should be allowed to do whatever they want within their own space and no one should be able to say otherwise.

Thankfully today that kind of harmful effect at least gets noticed by people even it continues and often it gets stopped. Pollution is one externality which has become a recognized reality, but there are others and one in particular I want to talk about. Where it seems that many people don’t understand externalities is in the area of personal rights. Example time again.

On one side you’ve got Person A who is religious and likes her right to practice her faith. On the other side you have Person B, who is gay and who likes his right not to be discriminated against for being gay. Now let’s also add that Person A runs the local daycare center and has very anti-homosexual views. Adding to that, Person B has a daughter he needs to put into daycare. You can see where this is heading.

Leaving the rest of this hypothetical situation vague, Person A might say she shouldn’t have to take care of the child because she has a gay father, or that she should be allowed to teach the girl that homosexuality is a sin while the girl is in her care. Person B might say his family should not have to put up with discrimination. Person A could say that since Person B opted for daycare he should accept what he gets. Person B could say that he doesn’t have any choice about which daycare he can put his daughter in. And so on. The argument eventually comes down to one of rights, namely the right to be religious and the right to be free from discrimination.

Obviously, being a non-religious myself I’m going to side with Person B in the example, but not just for that. Depending on your own viewpoint you’re going to see this conflict of rights in one of two ways: Person B is stepping over the line into someone else’s “rights space” by asking for them to compromise their religious beliefs OR Person A is stepping out of bounds by imposing religious beliefs on others. The key point, for me at least, is how you define where that magical line of fist-swinging actually is.

I believe that when you put yourself into the public sphere you are leaving a certain part of your personal space behind and entering a neutral space where the default ideal should not be one of expressing beliefs and other outward manifestations of rights, but one of protections and preservations of rights. In other words, when you’re “in private” you can do what you want, but when “in public” you first have to respect others and take into account what your actions will do to them. I’m using quotes because I don’t want to imply that “in private” simply means “on my property.” It means anywhere or anytime you might need to take someone else’s rights into account.

I’d argue that “in public” covers a lot more than what you might imagine. Certainly it covers traditional public spaces like roads, parks and other shared areas, but I would also say that schools, hospitals, and daycare centers are included. I would even say that in some cases a person’s own home can be a “public” space if, for instance, you are raising or caring for a child. That’s because kids are impressionable and can be vulnerable. In my view it is more important that a child be protected from imposed religious beliefs even if it means another person has to compromise their own religious beliefs. Really, I would say that about anyone. I mention children specifically not just because I used them as an example, but because there is this idea – I would call it a misconception – that it’s within a person’s rights to teach a child religious beliefs which specifically discriminate against people. I can’t see that other than harming a child and, moreover, a perversion of what religion is supposed to be, namely a spiritual organization aimed at helping people. Far too many non-religious ideas have slipped under that umbrella and try to gain protection for what is, essentially, oppression.

So when someone enters into “public” space they should understand that cannot take away someone’s rights even if it is normally their right to act in such a way that has those consequences. One’s identity is something that should always be protected except in very extreme and near-impossible-to-imagine circumstances. Identity doesn’t impose on others. It does not require a person take action toward another person. Identity doesn’t swing its fist. Religious beliefs are a mixture of identity and action. No one should be told they can’t have religious beliefs because faith itself is completely personal, but when certain beliefs require one to act in such a way that infringes on someone else’s rights then those beliefs are the rights that have to give in.
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  1. Old Comment
    Kura's Avatar
    That was an interesting read! Thanks, Scarf!
    Posted March 1st, 2011 at 11:10 AM by Kura Kura is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Melody's Avatar
    I happen to agree with this mostly.

    "Public" space begins where others' rights do begin. Not only do they have to respect your "unalienable" rights, but they also must not discriminate against you.
    Posted March 2nd, 2011 at 8:19 AM by Melody Melody is offline

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