In a recent article entitled “Investing in Evil” University of Chicago student Craig Johnson condemns his college for sanctioning investment in what he calls “institution[s] with blatantly unacceptable and even illegal practices.”
Johnson goes on to describe what he sees as a remedy for the situation, but the most interesting aspect of his article is the examples he uses to illustrate his point: South African Apartheid government, the Darfur Sudan region, and the HEI Hotel chain. The problem with investment in a brutal racist government or in a region now infamous for genocide is fairly self-evident. But what has HEI, a company that owns and runs private hotels and resorts across America, done to warrant its inclusion with such a horrendous pair? According to Johnson,
HEI has a history of violating the rights of its maintenance and housekeeping employees, ranging from denying healthcare benefits to suppressing the organization of unions.
Why should a company that fails to include health benefits for its workers or do business with unionized labor be painted with the same brush as the South African Apartheid and the Darfur genocide? While some might dismiss this as hyperbole on the part of an overzealous college student, the incongruous combination highlights a widespread error in talking about the idea of rights.
For many, the problem is the same in all these cases: a rights violation. The right to health care and other “worker’s rights” are seen as essentially the same as the right not to be killed by a warlord or the right to be protected from state-sanctioned racism. But there is a difference. Preventing corrupt governments and evil men from inflicting harm upholds the rights and freedoms of their victims—there can be no right to violate rights. Conceiving of something like healthcare as a “right”, however, necessitates the violation of other, legitimate rights. For example, to say that workers have a right to healthcare forces an unchosen obligation on their employer to provide those benefits. Such an obligation negates the legitimate rights of the employer to use his property and run his business as he chooses. All such economic rights set up a situation in which rights will necessarily clash.
In her essay, “Man’s Rights” Ayn Rand describes the essence of the issue in more detail:
Jobs, food, clothing, recreation(!), homes, medical care, education, etc., do not grow in nature. These are man-made values—goods and services produced by men. Who is to provide them?
If some men are entitled by right to the products of the work of others, it means that those others are deprived of rights and condemned to slave labor.
Any alleged “right” of one man, which necessitates the violation of the rights of another, is not and cannot be a right.
No man can have a right to impose an unchosen obligation, an unrewarded duty or an involuntary servitude on another man. There can be no such thing as “the right to enslave.”
A right does not include the material implementation of that right by other men; it includes only the freedom to earn that implementation by one’s own effort.
The issue of rights is perhaps the most important, yet often the most unclear, issue in political debate today. Because the role of government is to protect individual rights, a proper understanding of rights is vital to an effective and moral government. Calling into question the idea of economic “rights” is a crucial first step towards protecting and strengthening our legitimate rights of freedom and property.