Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Money Changes Hands, Therefore Your Rights Disappear

Apparently our freedoms disappear the moment money changes hands. I don’t understand this.

For example, some people think we have a basic right to privacy. The government has no business snooping in our private lives, peering into our bedrooms, or scoping out our associates. We have the right to be left alone. Except…suddenly this all changed the moment money changes hands. For sure, I can have all the secret dalliances I want and go to meetings of clandestine political organizations without the government tracking me. But if my interaction with another human being is “Here’s a sandwich, now pay me $6” that is suddenly blown wide open for government scrutiny. The government can demand to know the sum total of these dollar transactions, and it’s a federal crime to miscalculate this sum. I have to open my kitchen to nosy government inspectors, even though I would not have to do so if I were simply making sandwiches for my own children. (An empirical question: I wonder who is actually more likely to subject someone to food poisoning. A parent using ingredients from the fridge, or a sandwich shop? Not sure if data on this exists, but my guess would be the parent.) If “the right to privacy” is actually a principle, then that principle keeps applying after money changes hands. Money does not fundamentally taint human interactions in a way that negates our rights. If anything, market transactions, where we risk losing customers if we make mistakes, cause us to be more honest than we are in our personal lives.

I remember when the Panama Papers story broke, and everyone was seething with outrage that so many wealthy individuals had offshore accounts. I am quite certain that many of those “outraged” news junkies would, in a slightly different context, assert that we have a strong right to privacy. If asked to articulate why we need such privacy, they might give the hypothetical (or real) example of a government that prosecutes homosexuals or persecutes opposition political parties. We require a principled right to privacy for this to work. Otherwise any clever person (perhaps a government lawyer) can simply argue that the principle doesn’t apply in some particular case. And once we start playing that game, it’s not a principle at all.

We have many other rights that are supposedly negated the moment money is transferred from one hand to another. It is important that we enjoy the freedom to associate with other human beings, under whatever terms we find mutually agreeable. Again, many people will agree with this principle as it applies to marriage or political associations. But the moment I pay someone to perform a task for me, the range of possible arrangements is severely restricted. If freedom of association is even a thing, then it protects my right to sign any labor contract I want with anyone who is willing to accept those terms. Put aside for a moment the economic arguments against minimum wages and other labor market restrictions. There is a moral case for freedom of contract. If freedom of association applies to marriage contracts, there is no good reason why it wouldn’t also apply to labor contracts.

Free speech is another example. Commercial speech is severely restricted. The rationale often given for restricting commercial speech is overstated; the “problems” created by free commercial speech are completely overblown. Under no conceivable regime would businesses be able to completely misrepresent their products to their customers. Fraud would still be a crime even under a radically deregulated regime, even under full-blown anarchocapitalism. Companies that skirt the boundary between actual fraud and acceptable exaggeration (present in all advertisements, but usually obvious enough to not be misleading) run the risk of lawsuits.  The regulation of commercial speech in practice is absurd. (We have government bureaucrats telling a brewery to change the labels on their beer bottles because Santa’s eyes are “too googly” on the Christmas-themed beer.) At any rate, it’s fine to make some sort of argument that the “benefit outweighs the harm” for restrictions on commercial speech. But then you no longer believe in freedom of speech as a principle, and you should say so.

Market interactions are no different from any other kind of human intercourse. Couples, families, clubs, churches, political parties, businesses, and corporations are all just different ways of getting things done together. These are just different arrangements, specialized for achieving certain goals. Economic rights are not second-class rights. They are not even a separate category from other civil rights. The principle that allows me to arrange my social and personal affairs without government interference should logically apply to my economic affairs.

I could respect someone for saying, "Meh. I don't really believe in principle. I'm really a min-maxer. I would support whatever policy happens to be optimal in some particular case." But many people use the language of "rights" to justify things like gay marriage and political organization. And once you've articulated a right or a principle, you don't get to decide when it does or doesn't apply. 

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