Against Rights

by Ran Prieur

November 27, 2002

Creative Commons License
[Edited December 1, 2012.]

Although I'm aiming for a world where everything important is abundantly available to everyone, I've never liked the fashion of calling something "a right not a privilege." It's not just that it's a cliche -- there's something deeper that bugs me. So I thought it through.

I disagree with the idea of "privilege." It seems to take for granted that if you're in a position where you get something other people don't get, that's a good position that anyone would choose. It's not. I mean of course you'd choose to be the elite rather than the exploited, given a system where people are deprived of things other people have, to make the deprived people do what they hate. But given a choice between this system, and a system where no one feels deprivation, everyone would choose the latter over any position in the former. There are no good roles in an exploitative system -- the so-called "privileged" are just another class of the exploited, made to suppress their empathy, to set aside their souls in exchange for being exempted from a general forced deprivation, and living in fear of losing this protection and falling into the lower classes.

I disagree with the idea of "rights," at least when it means something guaranteed by the state or dispensed by some program. Rights work against the true interests of the deprived classes by making them depend on the state, an authoritarian structure that uses threats to force people to grudgingly go through the motions of treating each other decently, and that channels these motions through isolating and nightmarish bureaucracies. Even private charity reinforces feelings of superiority and inferiority. This is true whether the right is for something like money or something like freedom. Programs that transfer money from the rich to the poor never transfer enough, they make the rich despise the poor, and they make it possible for a system that generates inequality to keep going. The right to free speech is always overruled when speech actually threatens the system, and it leads to disconnected and utterly powerless dissent, where people say "I despise what you say but I support your right to say it," instead of actually listening to each other. Imagine if, instead of saying "We have a right to be given what we need," we said "We have the power to go and take it!" Or better yet, we have the power to create a society where we don't have all these needs in the first place.

Finally, I don't agree with the kinds of things that people declare to be "a right not a privilege." Nobody ever fills in the blank with anything interesting, anything that cuts to the heart of the system. No bumper stickers say "Not paying rent is a right not a privilege" or "Slacking off all day is a right not a privilege," or "Confiscating property is a right not a privilege," or "Rioting is a right not a privilege." Nobody turns it into a mind twister, like "Having more money than other people is a right not a privilege."

Of course that one would be absurd, but so are most of the actual things people fill in the blank with, things that by their nature cannot be given to everyone, things whose very definitions are tied into a depriving exploiting system, so that seeking to provide them to everyone is a permanent unwinnable game that only strengthens that system. Here are some real examples that ranked high on a web search:

"Health care is a right not a privilege." What people are getting at is, they want a society where everyone's health is taken care of, and they think in the present society only an exclusive minority has its health taken care of. But this society doesn't care for anyone's health. The rich and poor eat the same sugary over-refined foods, walk through the same electromagnetic fields, live downwind and downstream from the same sources of poisons and radioactivity, and even have the same perpetual emotional distress, even if they fear different things. Factors like these are what make us sick, and there's only a little room to buy yourself away from them. Some of them you can even avoid better through extreme poverty than extreme wealth.

Being out of balance is what makes a person sick, and our whole society is out of balance. The difference between the rich and poor is that the rich can afford more expensive treatments. Normally these treatments only suppress the personal symptoms of our societal imbalance, so the rich can live long lives with hidden sickness where the poor simply die. At worst, expensive treatments do more harm than good, or create high risks for trivial benefits.

Most of what we call "health care" is an industry that just keeps rich people's money circling back around in a mechanistic and authoritarian medical paradigm. Making access to Western industrial medicine a "right," extending it to the whole world, is not only a bad idea, it's logically impossible, since industrial medicine is deeply allied with the inequality that is part of industrialization. For every expensive machine and pharmaceutical, there have to be people with shitty jobs manufacturing these items and moving them around, and no one would ever do these jobs if they weren't coerced into it by deprivation.

"Owning guns is a right not a privilege." Since guns are a somewhat advanced technology in a deeply exploitative technological system, they cannot be manufactured without a lot of people being forced to do terrible jobs in mines and factories, or being forced off their land so minerals can be taken. If these people all had guns, they would shoot their bosses and invaders and guns couldn't exist in the first place. Now it would be possible for everyone to carry around some kind of easy-to-make but still deadly weapon, like a spear tipped with an obsidian blade, and that would make the world a lot more democratic, but no one has suggested it, because people are terrified of real democracy.

Do you think most people who support "gun rights" want convicted felons to have guns? Mexican border crossers? Anarchist protesters? Homeless people? Probably not. What they want are exclusive gun advantages for obedient middle or higher class citizens of wealthy nations.

"Education is a right not a privilege." It wouldn't be so bad if they said "learning," which implies something that anyone can do for themselves if they're not blocked. But "education" implies something dispensed and regulated by authorities, which in practice mostly serves to keep the system of deprivation and inequality in place.

I went to upper middle class schools in a college town, and I see in hindsight that we were trained to be lawyers and engineers and professors and managers, given broad knowledge, bland moderate-liberal politics, mild independent thinking skills, and the feeling that we were smarter and more capable than average people. I have a friend who went to lower class schools, where she says they were trained to think of themselves as stupid and worthless, and to unquestioningly follow orders. I have another friend who went to an upper class private school where almost everyone was mean and vain and selfish, and presumably the staff did not discourage it.

It might seem we could avoid this with another example I saw, "School choice is a right not a privilege." But in practice the system walks right over this "right" by giving us choices between nearly identical stupid-making institutions, and by finding ways to reinforce class differences within schools instead of between them. The right to school choice does not even begin to be empowering until it includes the right to not go to school at all.

"Driving is a right not a privilege." The automobile is probably the most wasteful technology in history. Its cost in human labor, in resources consumed and toxins produced in its manufacture and use, in earth covered with asphalt wastelands, is so extravagant that only the elite can ever drive, and not for much longer. But on a deeper level than that, driving is not even a benefit, but an obligation and a dependency. Most people who own automobiles own them because they need them to get around, because they live in cities where their living places and their laboring places and their food sources are all separated by miles and miles of pavement laid down to make room for automobiles.

Now you could go broader and say "Transportation is a right not a privilege," but if the places we needed to go weren't so far away from each other, separated by so many desolate and restricted spaces, "transportation" wouldn't even be a need. If we had a society where people were physically healthy and active, and almost all trips were less than a mile on inviting pathways, and food and shelter were generated locally, we wouldn't even use the word "transportation."

I could go on and on. Computers have a large ecological footprint and draw our attention into a thin simulated world. Voting is almost always a false choice between antidemocratic options, and when it isn't, the CIA usually comes in and topples the winner. "Leisure" is a recent concept implying that by default you're not free but laboring under coercion, and that when you're not being coerced you focus on selfish entertainment. "Clean water" usually means water treatment technologies, which just redistribute toxins out of the drinking water and into someplace else, from where they eventually go back into the water, and get to be taken out again, possibly generating profit for the same entities that made the toxins in the first place.

A right is always a privilege, if "right" means something that has to be dispensed by some program, and "privilege" means something scarce and supposedly good that's tied into a depriving system. A right is just a privilege that well-meaning shallow-sighted people try to give to everyone. But if we define a "right" as something that's implicit in the basic structure of society, so that everyone has it without anyone making any effort -- clean water because there are no poisons, freedom because there's no authority, equality because there are no means to concentrate wealth or power -- then that's really the opposite of the other kind of "right," and we wouldn't ever have a reason to declare it a right.

For example, maybe no one has ever spoken of the right to see color. Some people are colorblind but they don't think of it as deprivation of a right. But suppose we all had a chip put in our heads, by the ColorSee Corporation, that blocked us from seeing color unless we paid ColorSee a monthly fee. Then we would talk about "rights," and liberals would not try to get the chips taken out, but would demand a government subsidy so that everyone could pay ColorSee. And then the rich would hate the liberals and the poor, because damn it we had to spend years at painful schooling and jobs to afford to see color, and now the poor are going to get it for free which means we wasted our lives. And while we're all fighting about this, someone is inventing a wonderful new technology that, for a reasonable fee, allows us to breathe...

If you think this is all a ridiculous nightmare fantasy, I think so too. Welcome to it.