You watch a movie. Well, actually you spend a couple of minutes agreeing with your partner what you’d both like to see, a couple more using your phone to book two tickets, and hand over a wad of digital money in exchange for the on screen code that will get you into the theatre. It takes a little more time to actually get there. Every few minutes it occurs to you what else you might do instead – read Liberty.me articles, perhaps – but cannot. You should be allowed to do both, but you just can’t.

You see an opportunity to kill someone who annoys you without ever being discovered. In a material sense, only good things can come to you by doing so. No more annoyance. You might get their job and their higher salary. And yet you don’t do it. Given a billion such opportunities you still wouldn’t, not even of the other person put a gun in your hand and dared you to shoot them dead. Why? Because you possess a conscience that recoils at the thought of harming others. This means you possess a sense of right conduct towards other human beings.

Two simple realities limit the potential of human beings to satisfy our wants, morality and scarcity. Morality is a naturally arising mechanism whereby we employ our conscience rather than pure selfishness in our decisions, thus foregoing potentially profitable acts like murdering our work colleagues – assuming we’re next in line for their job and salary – in favour of letting them enjoy their lives. Our cognisance of past and future and our empathy seem to mix to give us a combination of selfish and unselfish desire to not harm others, and indeed sometimes to defend them as though we were defending ourselves. This is not in itself a proof of any one moral theory, but rather an observation that morals are very important in everyday human action.

Some things are subject to morality and some things are not. Some things are subject to scarcity and, surprise surprise, some things are not. Scarcity viewed by economists means a limit on real peoples’ capacity to consume a given good, such as air, or water. By the economist’s definition water is scarce but air is not. However much air I breathe your capacity to breathe free is unaffected. On the other hand, the water I drink today you cannot drink today. Your access to that water has been removed by my use of it. This scarcity is the cause of all economic behaviour, as we economise on our use of the resources around us, unless something has happened to make us forfeit that sense of responsibility.

It turns out there’s an article and an entire category of articles on Wikipedia dedicated to economic, social and cultural rights. This demands to be addressed rationally and patiently, because there are vast currents of economic and political thought conflating morality and scarcity. The confusion is ably summed up in the meme that offers this article’s image, above. “Everything I don’t like must be banned; everything I like is a human right and must be paid for by others.” So the meme goes, so the general wave of contemporary sentiment goes. Most people like broadly similar things when it comes to politics.

Not outright state socialism, that’s been discredited, but social democracy,astonishingly, hasn’t. We did all go to the same schools and get the same state-worshipping education, after all. We all learned history from a perspective that put the actions of states at the centre. We all learned that our governments are imperfect but on net a positive for society that provide public goods that couldn’t be provided by the market. Examples include defence, policing, courts, education and (in some countries) healthcare. We almost all want the government to absolve us of the awful responsibility of stewarding scarce resources due to our own disutility of labour, and politicians home in on this and bribe us with exactly this come election season.

In return we offer the leashes to our own neck-collars in taxation and indentured citizenship, meaning we can’t leave unless another government gives us permission to move into their territory. This takes the comely forms of taxation, regulation and inflation. And we accept this. In fact, we accept it so complete that whether or not we agree with this or that redistributive government policy, our preference is usually for something only marginally different anyway rather than to be free of those three government devices just mentioned. You want a 30% corporate tax rate. I want a 20% one. Discuss! This is the index card of allowable opinion, and deviation cannot be tolerated. Anyone who does so will be shouted down and barged out of the way so that the debate inside the index card can continue.

Of course the matter has been horrendously confused for decades. Socialism, the ideology that replaces scarcity with materialist morality, uses people’s physical comfort – at least to a very basic level – as its yardstick of justice. This is because in socialism the only justice is social justice, and the road to social justice is equality, not of status before the law, but of outcome. Quick disclosure; ‘equal’ means ‘the same as’. Social justice requires the conflation of morality and scarcity, since the socialist believes only fleetingly in the creation of wealth through mutual exchange. Socialism would much rather distribute existing wealth than see society create any more. I say ‘socialism’ and not ‘socialists’ because most socialists really believe the non-economics they spout.

Earlier you went to the movies with your partner. You gave up time, money, and effort to do so. You could not at the same time do anything else. If you were a factory-owner deciding what changes to make to your products and their quantities you are would, in the same way, have to take account of a whole battery of scarcities, including the scarce attention spans and work power of the workers. This is not a moral decision. But when morality and scarcity are merged, suddenly the wage rates and hours of the workers, the minimum age at which people can apply for work at your plant, and the notice period you must give before firing an employee become acts in some kind of moral crusade. Ochlocracy – all democracy is really just mob-rule – beckons.

What do the loudest mobs dislike? Guns, bigotry (even when it’s nonviolent), and poverty. Maybe house prices, college tuition and health insurance are unacceptably expensive. But the ‘unacceptable’ part cannot rightly be acted upon because the rejection of the present cost of living is a reflection of individual preference for an easier life than is currently the case. Such a life cannot be ushered magically into being without making someone else poorer. In practice every country in the world sees its populace hobbled in their quest for self-improvement by the taxes and inflation which fund government warfare, welfare and regulations.

The impulse to better our situation by any means available to us is built into our nature which is always there, and no amount of affluence will make it go away. Thus it cannot be used as a moral yardstick with which to attack the continued existence of poverty, however upsetting its reality may be for the first-world socialist to behold and for the impoverished individual to experience. That pressure is dissatisfaction with the present which motivates us to form goals for the future which we then act to attain. This is how we transition from the less satisfying present state to the more satisfying future one. But when that future state becomes present, still new dissatisfactions arise! Ad infinitum.

What do these rich world socialists like? Government funding of the arts, of healthcare, of education! Little do they notice that this welfare is just the flipside of warfare. But what of scarcity, and the immediate need in all our lives to steward scarce resources responsibly? Doesn’t even register. The moral panic around the paucity of health check-ups, daycare and internet connections at universally accessible prices is very real and pressing, and politicians know this.

And so we get KYC (Know Your Customer) laws. We get court cases (and verdicts) against businesspeople who refuse to serve patrons they are uncomfortable around on their property. We get price fixing that leads to over-supply when it’s set too high and under-supply when it’s set too low, leading to shortages of healthcare in the UK – the cost of free healthcare, if you will. And we get long term welfare dependency (along with highly regulated, semi-price-fixed* healthcare and farm subsidies) which somehow, when it results in obesity, low self-esteem, gang culture, crime, de-civilisation and intolerance, is then blamed on the very free markets that were sidelined to make way for the welfare programs that created these problems in their modern form.

All of this could be summed up, as that article on Wikipedia goes, as people fighting for economic rights. ‘Living wages’, government subsidised housing and jobs for life are often cited as being somehow a right, even though they have to be paid for by others. As per the summary in the meme above, none of us wants to deal with any bad things, and want a parade of the good. Naturally this is impossible in a world of scarcity, in which each of us is finite in space (little bodies that we have) and time (we’re all mortal) and so what actually happens when our wish is granted and everything we like gets socialised is that (as per the third example in the paragraph just above) the consumer price drops below the point where producers have any incentive to meet our demands as consumers, leading to massive shortages, hence bread lines and dying patients being wheeled out of hospitals and social collapse wherever this poisonous ideology has been taken to its logical conclusion.

 

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But to entertain basic principle for a moment, what is the logical answer to the question of economic rights? Do I have a right to a toaster? An internet connection? A house? A Ferrari? A Death Star? Of course not. Society (in the aggregate sense) doesn’t exist, so cannot have rights. And cultures are intellectual abstractions, like real-life social networks and the market itself, so they don’t actually exist as entities either. So economic, social and cultural rights are non-existent, and that is a good thing. It has been demonstrated that people are confusing two very different beasts for one another and trying to make cases for grossly immoral actions by governments to fix social problems that in all probability only still exist because of government interventions up to now.

Scarcity is amoral, morality is non-scarce, so ne’er the two shall meet. The quantity of water in the world has no moral dimension. Only human choice does. Water does not make choices. We do. Our capacity to choose is itself non-scarce, and our capacity to be moral or immoral is thus non-scarce. We would do well to bear this in mind before we start beating our chests and crying for single-payer healthcare (disclosure; as a Brit, I can tell you it doesn’t work out well) or bigger military budgets or tighter regulation of the beans used in coffee shops or whatever jacobin nonsense crosses people’s minds in future. Remember, if morality is non-scarce, only acts that don’t interrupt someone else’s enjoyment of scarce resources can be moral. So only negative rights can be upheld while remaining moral. Peace and prosperity await any persons who choose together to live in peace with one another, and never again to live at one another’s expense.