The intersection of rights in a complex world

By Gene Balfour

Gene Balfour is the former chairman of the Ontario Libertarian Party.

When property rights intersect human survival rights, events occur that challenge what it means to be human.

On the one hand, Libertarians stand by property rights because we believe that it is a morally legitimate stance to protect what is ours. We believe that it is the most fundamental responsibility of our elected officials to protect and defend our individual person and property from others who may wish to compromise these in any manner.

On the other hand, there are those people who rally for human rights. These folks believe that a fundamental responsibility of government is to take assets from some citizens and distribute these to less fortunate citizens. The target recipients are alleged to be persons who have lost all of their material assets and the only ‘property’ that they have left is their own person.

Abraham Maslow, the famous American psychologist, is famous for his depiction of the human Hierarchy of Needs. The need to sustain the basics of life (water, food, shelter) is the most fundamental need of all. Without these, the satisfaction of the higher strata of needs is not possible according to Maslow’s theory.

Illegal immigration is a contentious topic. For people to cross national borders illegally is surely an act of desperation. If it is no longer possible to meet even their most fundamental needs, humans will act in their own best interests even if it means that they must consciously flout laws and risk “life and limb” to get these needs met. This is especially true when immediate family members are also at severe risk.

The Libertarian in me generally defaults to the typical, male, left-brain argument that property rights must be enforced at all costs. This position, however, is easy for me to take from the comfort of my home and all of the amenities that I have been able to supply to my household from a life-time of career success and saving.

There is another side of me that remembers the 18 year-old Gene Balfour who spent from late August 1969 to early June 1970 travelling in Europe and living day-to-day in a financial state of poverty. (For example, I lived in a cave on the southern shores of Crete for one month sleeping on the dirt/stone floor in my sleeping bag). This nine-month ‘test of survival’ was my choice, but many others who are displaced from their homes do not have this luxury.

When I hear stories of refugees from Syria, or Honduras, or any other dysfunctional nation state (or one that falls victim to a natural catastrophe such as an earthquake), I hope that the compassionate “human” side of me will never forget that “there but for the grace of God go I.” Wisdom begins with the knowledge that a natural, economic or political crisis can appear at any time without warning.

This wisdom, however, does not tame my profound distrust of our political elites. I don’t doubt for a moment that they have, and will exercise, the power to protect themselves first and foremost whenever a serious calamity hits. I can hear them now, righteously proclaiming to act “for the greater good” as they seize an increasing share of the retirement assets that I earned over my 42 year career in the private sector. And if anyone were to suggest that they accept a reduction in compensation or retirement benefits in response to a fiscal crisis, you will never hear the end of the squawking.

This ‘rights discussion’ seems analogous to one’s appreciation of fine art:  justice like beauty “is in the eye of the beholder.” But I wonder, is justice for groups the same as justice for each individual with his or her unique circumstances? Does care-giving for the needy necessarily trump a property rights moral edict which argues that it is unlawful to take from the “haves” to give to the “have-nots?” Is there ever a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ when human rights conflicts with property rights?

Since I struggle to answer these questions for myself, I wonder how anyone can be expected to answer them fairly and adequately at the election ballot box? I guess each of us will decide instances of these rights intersections according to the fickle and mysterious realm of each human conscience.  Ultimately, is justice really just a matter of subjective preferences?

1 Comment

  1. Karla Forgaard-Pullen says:

    Maslow’s work was specifically created to support the emerging capitalist industrial complex – to indicate to the owners of capital how to satisfy the least needs of their labour force. While we, like Maslow, all respond to the ideas presented in the hierarchy, he did not offer any explanation for another reality – that one can have all their basic needs met, plus have access to material goods through ‘disposable’ income, but still be fundamentally unsafe, disenfranchised, and become physically unwell if you live in a society in which you are a second class citizen. This is well evidenced by comparing women’s health, employed POC’s health, etc to the main stream statistics. Maslow’s work must be viewed within the limited context in which it was created. Using it to bolster political views shows shallow understanding of the complexities of the human psyche.

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