Last week Russell wrote a rather good article (as he usually does), called “The Left’s Lifeboat Logic”. Unfortunately he goes off course along the way, and I’m going to criticise him quite harshly in what follows for drifting into anti-libertarian waters. Russell scolds the “left” for abusing ‘lifeboat situations’. But he too believes in ‘lifeboat situations’ that necessitate State interference. It’s just that Russell’s lifeboats come in a different colour.
Where does Russell go wrong, then? He quotes the “ever-excellent” Jonah Goldberg:
“In a lifeboat, if you have ten candy bars and someone else has none, you must share. Property rights go out the window. The problem with lifeboat logic [... ] is that it only applies in lifeboat situations. It doesn’t apply when you can jump out of the lifeboat and swim to shore… By invoking an existential crisis when there is none, you are saying that [...] individual rights must be suspended for the greater good.”
The first two sentences of that quote alone should set alarm bells ringing. For neither Jonah nor Russell is this the case, though. Instead, both take it for granted that in “lifeboat situations” property rights become meaningless, and all that matters is “the greater good”. The last sentence of the Goldberg quote might be mistaken for liberal: you lefties don’t care about individual rights, damn you! But Jonah and Russell are themselves saying that the existence of individual rights is dependent upon the absence of an “existential crisis”, whatever that may mean. They merely disagree with the hated lefties on exactly when individual rights can be disregarded.
Imagine Russell and I are the fellows in the lifeboat, and that I have all the candy bars. Russell claims that, given our situation, “property rights [have gone] out the window”, and therefore I must share my candy with him. But this is clearly nonsense. Property rights, far from going out the window, are coming in through the front door thick and fast. He now has property rights in candy bars where before he did not. Property rights have not vanished, but multiplied – why else “must” I share the candy bars? We’ll enquire into how Russell comes by these alleged rights later. For now, let’s assume they are real rights and tackle some “practical” problems this new distribution throws up.
How many of the ten candy bars “must” I hand over to Russell, so as not to infringe on his new rights? At first glance it seems that five is the only correct answer. There are two of us in the same situation, the common pool of ten candy bars should be shared equally. But hang on a moment. Are we really in the same situation? The question is not an absurd one. For instance, one of us may be diabetic – equality of candy bars might be fatal. What about this: I’m a pretty skinny dude – maybe I don’t need to eat that much anyway. Five candy bars for me might be ‘too many’ by the peculiar standards of lifeboat logic. Then again, perhaps this means I should have more, that I somehow ‘deserve’ a good meal? Or consider this: Russell has children, whereas I don’t. Is Russell’s survival therefore more in keeping with promoting “the greater good” than mine? Maybe, seen from this perspective, he has property rights in all ten candy bars? But then again, surely there is at least one perspective from which my survival, even if it means Russell’s death, is for “the greater good”. Or what about this: How hungry are me and Russell? Maybe we should measure our respective hungers and compare them, with the hungrier receiving a larger share of candy bars? But such an interpersonal comparison of subjective values is impossible. And even if it weren’t, we’d still be left with the question of precisely how many more candy bars the hungrier of us should get. No matter which way we turn, we are confronted with the fact that any distribution of shared candy bars would be entirely arbitrary. Which is problematic because apparently Russell has definite property rights in the candy bars, and a right means you can enforce particular behaviours. That is, should I refuse to hand over any candy, Russell can legitimately use violence to take a bar/some bars/all the bars from me, and, likewise, I can legitimately use violence to keep a bar/some bars/all the bars.
Perhaps the concept of “existential crisis” can help solve this puzzle. Maybe I “must share” if he is at the existential crisis-point of starving to death? Again we don’t know exactly how many candy bars I must give him, but we can now at least see the issue clearly: the candy bars were just a red herring. Russell’s “property right” is actually a “right to life”. Somehow, Russell has aquired rights over me; I can be forced to keep him alive. The ‘somehow’ is nothing but his ‘need’ to remain alive. But a ‘need’ is nothing more than a strong preference.
Oh, but surely “need” is of a wholly different type than “want”? Without, say, books, we might be unhappy, but a lack of books isn’t an “existential crisis”. Without food, we’d die. Books are a luxury, food a necessity. We “need” food.
Not so fast. This argument rests on the assumption that carrying on living is itself a necessity. But this is clearly not true – for proof look no further than suicide. Men can, and do, choose death over life. Even on a lifeboat, suicide is possible. Now, people kill themselves for all sorts of reasons, and each suicide, by that very act, demonstrates that they “needed” something other than oxygen, food and water to carry on living. So, contrary to Jonah/Russell, if “existential crises”, ie, “needs”, ie, strongly expressed preferences create rights, then lifeboat logic doesn’t only apply in lifeboats, it applies at all times. The whole world is one big lifeboat! Each potential suicide (and anyone can potentially commit suicide over absolutely anything at any time) would have the right to force someone or other to perform certain acts. The jilted lover would have the right to force his ex to love him; the student scared of getting bad grades would have the right to force his examiners to pass him; the morbidly obese chap would have the right to force a surgeon to make him thin, etc, etc, etc.
We know there are sensitive souls who say they couldn’t live without art. How can we know for sure they’re not deadly serious about this? If, on our lifeboat Russell tells me he “couldn’t live without music,” must I sing to him? Apparently I must. And this holds when we reach land, too. As “needs” are logically no different from “wants”, he wouldn’t even have to threaten to kill himself. He could just tell me he “needs” me to sing to him, and this by itself would create an enforceable right. Conversely, I could tell Russell that I “need” to remain silent, which would itself be an enforceable right exactly counter to his. Picture such a system of “rights” applied universally. The result would be utter chaos, no different from if property rights had indeed “gone out the window”.