Does every right come at somebody else's expense?

Sometimes, the 'cost' imposed on others is meaningless.

Ann Hermes / Staff / File
Hundreds of protesters came out to oppose the building of a Muslim center near Ground Zero in New York City's financial district on August 22, 2010. Would the construction of the mosque actually pose any real costs to the people who opposed it?

In the comments on this post below, Rhodes math professor Jeff Hamrick makes a very important point. I quote him in full:

Of course, it is a fallacy that every right comes with a meaningful cost derived at somebody else’s expense. For years, I’ve heard that respecting the right of every person to marry the one they love will “cost” heterosexuals something. It will do something to their children. It will impose some utterly vague inconvenience on straights as they come to understand marriage differently. It will force the state to shed pennies here and there to allow LGBT individuals to enjoy the same estate tax, Social Security, etc., benefits. While this “right” comes with a cost (and the general point about NFLVR is well-taken), let’s be clear about the real reasons that people complain about certain costs: these complaints are often a thinly-veiled way to encode bigotry or disdain for a group of people, whether those people are a pair of lesbians living in the hood or a family in sub-Saharan Africa hoping for a clean water source.

A couple of thoughts in response:

1. This is exactly the kind of discussion I would want to have in the perfect liberal arts college course.

2. Jeff is right that not all “costs” are meaningful. Any change in the status quo will impose a “cost” on someone else. I don’t have a right to demand compensation because my neighbor’s shiny new car makes me feel bad; as philosopher Michael Huemer said once at an IHS conference we both attended in response to a criticism of income inequality, “envy is a vice.” Along these lines, here’s Steve Landsburg’s review of Robert Frank’s Luxury Fever. Murray Rothbard offers a clear treatment of a number of cases in The Ethics of Liberty. I applied some of these principles to the immigration debate in a Forbes article last year.

3. I don’t think principles can depend on political context. In short, we can’t be voice-of-the-people deliberative democrats when Our Team is in power and checks-and-balances strict constructionists when Their Team is. Even if we want to be strictly utilitarian about it, we have to be mindful of unintended consequences. The power we’re enjoying today will probably be used against us tomorrow.

Rights like private property and religious freedom also can’t be unalienable for Our Team and dependent on a cost/benefit test for Their Team. Over the summer, I discussed how this was particularly evident in the hysteria over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, during which principles like private property rights and religious freedom were being attacked by those who claim to hold them most dear.

4. A lot of opponents of gay marriage base their opposition on alleged social costs, but the arguments I’ve heard are almost all speculative. I’d be interested in good estimates of the net effect of gay marriage on government finance and economic growth. As Jeff points out, the cost is almost certainly trivial, and I would suspect that there are good reasons to think it’s positive.

5. Perspective matters. One of my favorite books is Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter, which I’m going to assign in my Public Choice class in the Fall. Here’s an abbreviated version, and here’s a podcast. One of Caplan’s points is that there is an enormous gap between voters’ perceptions of the percentage of the federal budget devoted to foreign aid (very large) and the reality (very small). Caplan discusses “anti-foreign bias” at length; “foreign” can be anyone other than “members of my tribe.”

All of this leaves me tempted to take David Gordon’s course on epistemology.

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