Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Basic Needs and Basic Rights

Occasionally I see people being outraged about the idea of putting a market price on everyday water usage (see here for background on a perennial example involving Nestle).  The idea seems to be that since water is a basic need, so we should have a basic right to its free provision.  This seems a pretty bad inference in general -- food is also a basic need, after all, and it seems unlikely that its centralized provision would do better than current food markets.  The heart of the problem, I think, rests on a misunderstanding of the proper relation between basic needs and rights. (Well, that and economic illiteracy.)

Compare two alternatives:
(1) A direct right to the (free) provision of some good (e.g. water) for all.
(2) A right to an institutional framework that secures, as well as possible, reliable access for all to the good in question.
The second kind of right is more desirable, more feasible, and hence overall provides a better way to understand the rights associated with basic needs.  But note that there's nothing in this second conception that requires that the good in question be given away for free.  If better access can be secured via a market system (combined with a basic income or other redistribution to ensure that all can afford to buy the needed goods at market prices), then that's precisely what proper respect for this right requires. [See also: 'Tax and Redistribute'.]

Why is the second kind of right more desirable?  Precisely because a requirement to provide a scarce valued commodity for free inevitably leads to overconsumption and shortages (as seen in California, where agribusiness wastes huge amounts of water growing alfalfa for animal feed).  The attempt to directly institute a right to water in this way thus fails to actually secure access as well as alternative (market) mechanisms.

Given a choice between a badly-implemented direct "right" to some good, or a functional system that actually secures more reliable access to the good in question, I know which I'd prefer!


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