“Commodities” vs. “Basic Human Rights”

I’m going to make a generalization here. Treating a good as a “basic human right” is one way to make sure you don’t have enough of it. Treating a good as a “commodity” is the only way to make sure you have plenty of it. I’m thinking about K-12 education, housing for the poor, access to a clean environment, and just about everything in a socialist system.

Other examples? Exceptions?

8 thoughts on ““Commodities” vs. “Basic Human Rights”

  1. I agree with you but I can see where the liberals will them say we should make clean air into a commodity.

      1. If by “successful” you mean “meeting-the-liberal-goal-of-spreading-climate-alarmism-to-justify-giving-government-more-power-while-doing-absolutely-nothing-to-reduce-global-emissions(even-possibly-ENSURING-a-certain-minimum-level-of-emissions)”, then I would agree that cap and trade is a success. But in any event, they haven’t turned clean air into a commodity. They’ve just turned sulfur dioxide into a liability. There’s a big difference. You still get to breathe air for free in a cap-and-trade scheme.

      2. Sulfur dioxide causes acid rain, not climate change. To be precise, cap and trade turns the right to pollute into a commodity. Which does mean that the firms that need to pollute the most get to. But by putting a price on it, it also means that there’s less pollution overall.

      3. Fair point, but they’ve tried cap and trade with CO2 as well (see the Chicago Climate Exchange). My point really was that most “green regulation” is not aimed to fix a problem, but rather to grow the government. On my larger pont, turning the “right to pollute” into a commodity is no different from turning the “right to smoke marijuana” into a commodity, but nobody would look at Federal drug laws as creating a commodity. It’s just a ban that some people are allowed to ignore. My point is that, actual basic human rights include only negative liberties. So one can turn a (positive) market good or service that is abundant into a more scarce resource by declaring it a “basic human right” (which it is not and can never be, because true human rights can only be negative, lest they pose a corresponding liability on another human), as you correctly stated above, but this mechanism is limited in its effects to “positive” goods and services. Any such action with regards to negative liberties is superfluous and unnecessary in a truly free society (i.e. limiting murders to one per person). So my position regarding emissions regulations would fall in one of two categories. Since pollution is not a “positive” good, a limit on pollution would either be a superfluous restriction of something that is already illegal and immoral because it harms others, OR an arbitrary government ban of free conduct to the benefit of nobody in particular. In neither case is the regulation good, moral or necessary.

      4. Well, pollution imposes third-party harms, so there’s no doubt on standard libertarian moral principles that it can be regulated. On the other hand, tiny amounts of pollution pose no measurable risk and should be permitted on libertarian principles. So there’s a good case for regulation of pollution but not a complete ban.

  2. By turning something from a public good into a commodity you do increase the incentives for creating more of it, but you also reduce the demand. Since, the price is higher, people demand less of it. That could have some unintended negative consequences (think education) so I’d be careful about applying this too broadly. While proper pricing does tend to make markets more efficient, perfect information is required to make that work. Since perfect information is, in almost all cases, impossible, it’s possible that you could actually achieve more efficiency through public goods than commodities. Plus, you run into free rider problems (if you know enough people are going to pay for access to a clean environment, where’s your incentive to pay?)

    I know this argument is fully fleshed out, it’s just my first reaction to the post.

    1. Well, you could commoditize it while still subsidizing it, if you thought the positive externalities were significant enough (the education example). The only economic reason to have direct public provision would be thinking that a) the industry is a natural monopoly and b) government employees will be more public spirited than employees of a private regulated monopoly. And even then, you probably wouldn’t want to make your product completely free of charge.

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