In this 3rd installment of my series on my personal view on what I find to be the most solid defense of rights and why we should hold them as superior to all other concerns and claims, I’m going to get into some very basic economic concepts by loosely discussing a bit of what economists call (sometimes pejoratively) “Crusoe Economics”, based on a novel about a dude who, unfortunately, has to spend a lot of time on an island with no hula dancers. This may seem odd… what do economics have to do with rights? … and it may take a couple of posts to get to where I’m going with this not-entirely-original-by-any-stretch concept, but I swear by the powers of Darth Vader, I AM going somewhere with all of this!
To truly understand what rights are and why we need them, we must first peal away all of the complexities of the world and look at a man alone in a state of nature, and, in this case, on an island. With no hula dancers.
Let’s call this man…. Milton.
Milton is hanging out alone on an island. Never mind how he got there. Let’s just say he was on a 3 hour tour… a 3 hour tour….. Anyway, Milton, alone on this island, has absolutely no need for rights. They are of no use to him. Declaring them would be pointless. Nature would not respect whatever rights he claimed to have, because much like the honey badger, nature don’t give a damn. Try to convince nature you have a right to not be aggressed against and it’ll send a hurricane to destroy your house just to screw with you.
As is the case with every other human being, Milton has wants, needs, desires, dreams, beliefs, outlook, values, virtues, knowledge, experiences, and abilities. Each of these is not only 100% subjective (though aspects of his knowledge might not be), but also in a virtually constant state of flux given he lives in a dynamic world where changing circumstances in the facts about the world around him, and his relationship to those facts, can cause a change in any one (or more) of these, and possibly have a chain effect on one (or more) of the others.
The multitude of ends he wishes to achieve, whether more long term (like getting off of the island) or short term (building shelter) can only be achieved by forgoing, at least for the time being, the next most important end he wishes to achieve (in economic terms, this list of ends is called his ‘value scale’). For example, Milton may want both shelter and food. Instead of starting to walk around picking up branches to start building a hut, he begins to walk down to the water to try to catch some fishies. We can assume by his action that, in the present moment, Milton values the fishies over the chance to start building shelter. What this means is that the amount of shelter Milton would have built during the time it took him to catch some fishies is the true cost of the fishies (in economic terms, this is called ‘opportunity cost’).
While Milton’s choice to catch fishies instead of beginning work on a hut is ultimately subjective, and while it reveals his preference in the present for fishies over beginning work on a hut (an individual’s preferences are revealed by their actions) this decision will be influenced by ‘marginal utility’ (another economic term). In other words, if Milton has no fishies, he may value catching fishies over starting work on the hut, whereas had he already had some fishies left over from fishing for fishies the previous day, he may value starting work on the hut now as opposed to catching more fishies. If he only had one fishy… he may again lean towards catching more… and if he had 10 fishies, he would be a good deal more inclined to forgo catching more and instead begin work on the hut.
DECISIONS, DECISIONS, DECISIONS…
Now, to further the example, let’s say Milton chose to catch the fishies. On his way down to the water, he may notice that clouds seem to be gathering in the distance. This is a change in the facts of the dynamic world around Milton, and everything else comes into play which will now effect his actions. Maybe he has past experience with seeing these particular cloud formations at that distance and surmises it is not likely a storm will hit, and therefore, he will continue to fish. For fishies. Or, perhaps he recognizes that this means there is a probability there will be a storm that night. This may completely change his value scale. Depending again upon his subjective wants, needs, desires, dreams, beliefs, outlook, values, virtues, knowledge, experiences, abilities, relative to the new information he has been confronted with, he may decide that now starting work on a hut is of greater value to him than catching fishies. Even if it means he will go hungry for the night.
As a complete digression: the fishies are rooting for that choice.
However, he may not decide this. He may decide not having shelter is a risk he believes is worth taking. He may decide being hungry is a greater hardship than being wet and windblown, much to the dismay of the fishies. He may simply decide that there is a strong possibility this storm could be bad enough to kill him, and he rather enjoys fishing and would rather spend his final day alive doing that and enjoying a good meal than building a hut that most likely won’t do him any good anyway.
The IMPORTANT POINT, is that any of these choices is, ultimately, 100% subjective. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. There is no objective way of determining, especially ahead of time, whether Milton took the ‘right’ amount of risk for the potential reward. There is no objective way of measuring whether Milton should choose an option which will extend his life the longest (even of truly knowing what that will be), or an option that may lead him to an earlier death, but in his view, a happier life. Further, Milton can never be completely sure that he has made the ‘right’ choice because he can never go back in time and make the other choice, and he has no idea how those choices will truly effect him in the future, or how his views about those choices will change.
But what about how this all relates to the world in which Milton lives? As Milton takes purposeful action to achieve his ends he will need to make use of whatever resources are available to him at the time. He will need land on which to pursue his chosen end, a technical idea (a recipe, so to speak) about how to pursue the end, a body with which to labor in pursuit of the end, and time in which to labor in his pursuit of the end. The material resources (his body, the trees, rocks, fish, etc) are scarce in that in any given place and time, he has a finite amount at his disposal. For example, while there are maybe hundreds if not thousands of fallen branches to build his hut with, there are only so many in the vicinity in which he has time (which is also scarce) to collect them if he is going to be able to finish his hut before the storm arrives.
However, some of these resources are not scarce and are, instead, infinitely reproducible. For example, once he has figured out an effective and satisfactory way of securing branches together, he can produce this result by utilizing this recipe as many times as he needs to so long as he has enough scarce, physical resources at his disposal.
These are some of the basic economic truths we know about human beings, and therefore, Milton, and their efforts to pursue their desired ends. In my next post, we will add another man to the island, introducing the potential for violent conflict in their individual efforts to utilize these scarce resources for their separate ends.