The Logical Impossibility of Absolute Rights

There is an important implication of my post from yesterday (or, perhaps more accurately, I should say this post as important implications that lead to yesterday’s post): universally absolute rights are logically impossible.

We tend to hear arguments by libertarians and anarcho-capitalists that certain rights, namely property rights, are absolute (for example, see Murray Rothbard’s article here).  No one can prevent us from doing what we want with our property (including our bodies) or enjoying our property as we see fit.  While on the surface, this seems reasonable, it is a logically impossible thing to enforce.

Let’s consider an example, similar to the one I gave yesterday.  Two neighbors have an abutting piece of land.  One neighbor, Joe, has a pool and a nice backyard he enjoys lounging in.  However, one thing he does not like is the smell of smoke and the sound of loud noises.  These things reduce the enjoyment of his property.  The other neighbor, Bob, has a backyard as well, but he likes to sometimes hold barbeques, bonfires, and parties.  When he does this, he generates noise and smoke that inevitably flow over to Joe’s yard.  In other words, Joe’s “stuff” is being messed with.

If both parties have absolute property rights, how can this situation be resolved?  If Joe cannot request, require, or negotiate some end to Bob’s activities, his ability to enjoy his property as he sees fit is diminished by Bob’s actions.  Likewise, if Joe’s ability to enjoy his property is maintained, then Bob’s enjoyment of his property must necessarily be reduced by reducing or eliminating his barbeques, bonfires, and parties.  Either way, someone‘s property right is not absolute.  Something has to give.

It is important to note there is no necessary need for state intervention here.  Joe and Bob can (and likely will, absent major costs) find some mutually beneficial arrangement.  But that arrangement must result is someone’s rights being attenuated.  If one of them has an absolute right, the other cannot.

The question should not be whether some rights are absolute or not.  Absolute rights are a logical impossibility.  Rather, the question should be how to resolve conflicts that inevitably arise when rights collide.  If libertarians cannot address these conflicts, then we necessarily secede the argument of conflict resolution to the statists.  By insisting on absolute rights, a logical impossibility, we state outright libertarianism has no place in the real world as it cannot resolve conflicts.  This has to end.

8 thoughts on “The Logical Impossibility of Absolute Rights

  1. “It is important to note there is no necessary need for state intervention here.”

    If Joe or Bob or folks like them do not ask for state intervention, the state will probably not intervene. Representatives normally don’t have time to work on things they wish to do because they are putting fires out all the time or helping other representatives with their stuff to get their votes to put out fires.

    There are a couple of obvious problems (at least): 1) people who do not make their wishes known who want no action, and as just as fervently as the people who want action, are not accommodated even if they are in the majority, and 2) money and/or voting blocks buy outsize influence.


  2. Property rights are legislated but only maintainable by force. This is why sovereign claims between countries are ultimately only backed by their military power. But even claims within a nation it requires policing and punishment to establish.
    Talking about it like an absolute right is nonsense except as propoganda!


    • That’s why I thought Jon’s last paragraph was especially insightful even though I commented on the paragraph before the last one. It was a great way to close.


  3. Rights are absolute until they conflict, then they must be negotiated.
    Is your right to your life not absolute, that is, do you absolutely have a right to your life.
    Ah, we have a proviso…provided that you don’t interfere with the rights of other, hence a mugger is abdicating his right to his life because his action is contrary to equality of rights.

    It’s not just rights that are on the table, there is also equality in rights. Just as important. One does not exist without the other.


  4. Viewing rights, including property rights, as negative instead of positive reduces or eliminates most of the conflicts and uncertainty described here. There are no absolute positive rights.

    Without discussing exactly what property rights are actually included in Joe & Bob’s respective packages of real estate, (unless you want to) and without knowing who lived there first, we could say that Joe has a negative right to NOT have the peaceful enjoyment of his property disturbed, but we wouldn’t say that Bob has a positive right to harm his neighbor with loud noise and smoke.

    Besides, I suspect Joe is just pissed because bob never invites him to his noisy parties. How could anyone NOT like Chrome Smoke & BBQ. 🙂


    • Ron, that’s why rules are numerous and universal and enforcement/non-enforcement is particular to each case with its own set of facts (or precedent with like cases). Hopefully, the person deciding the dispute is impartial. Of course, any infraction is judged on spirit and/or letter.

      Rule violations without complaints are often not enforced, but that does not mean the rule is not needed in the toolbox. Rules/laws often go unused until needed but then you must have the rule before the undesired action because retroactive rules usually will not pass a legal challenge.


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