One of the major distinctions between classical liberals and progressives is the question of whether there is a difference between civil and economic rights. Progressives going back to at least John Stuart Mill have argued that economic rights can be separated from the wider stream of civil rights. Because of this, it is possible to override claims about property if it benefits the wider public or even to deny that there is even such a thing as a right to property. On the other extreme, libertarians argue that there are only economic rights. Civil rights are only meaningful to the extent that they can be framed as economic rights. For example, freedom of speech really means that I have the right to own paper and a printing press, print books with them and distribute them to the general public. To better understand this potential distinction between economic and civil rights, I have a thought experiment.
Mohammed ibn Scrooge is a pious Muslim who studies the Koran and the Hadith in a madrasa. The government comes to Ibn Scrooge and says: "It is not right that a man of your great intellect should waste his talents on something that does not serve the public interest. We wish to draft you into medical school." When Ibn Scrooge refuses the government’s generous offer of free medical school, they threaten him: "If you insist on being so selfish as to not work to solve the national healthcare crisis, we are going to tax you based on what you would have earned as a doctor. This will allow us to fund the healthcare system, which serves the public interest."
Driven to bankruptcy and despair, Ibn Scrooge comes to the realization that he finds no meaning anymore in Islam. Instead, he decides that what he really wants out of life is a giant money bin full of gold coins that he can jump into from a diving board and swim around in. Using his Ayn Rand hero-level genius, Ibn Scrooge invents a new light bulb, a cheap clean energy motor, and a superior form of steel. He also becomes the CEO of both a railroad and a copper mining company. For a hobby, he designs skyscrapers. After many years of great intellectual labor, Ibn Scrooge becomes the richest person in the world. Before Ibn Scrooge can fulfill his dream and dive into his gold, the Beagle Boys show up waving their IRS badges to inform him that having a money bin full of gold to swim in does not serve the public interest. It is much better to "tax" Ibn Scrooge of all his gold to fund the healthcare of millions of poor children.
Having fended off the Beagle Boys' efforts to "tax" his money bin over many years, Ibn Scrooge finally takes his first dive into his money pool. After taking a few laps, he realizes that, despite his money bin, he feels rather empty. Thinking back to the religion of his youth and how much happier he was studying in a madrasa, Ibn Scrooge vows to Allah that he will use the gold in his money bin that he wasted his life gathering to fund madrasas across the country. Ibn Scrooge is about to open his first madrasa when the government announces that they are requisitioning the madrasa buildings as they would be better used as hospitals.
I take it as a given that most of my readers believe that it is more important to improve the quality of healthcare in this country than to advance the study of the Koran and the Hadith. That being said, I also assume most of my readers have imbibed enough of the classical liberal spirit to side with Ibn Scrooge at least in the first and third cases. This is despite the fact that the government has a very plausible argument that their actions would lead to an objectively better world.
It should be clear that the concept of rights, whether they are economic or civil, is only meaningful if they are allowed to trump the public interest. One can always make a plausible argument that violating someone's liberty is in the public interest. Does anyone deny that the government could improve the quality of healthcare if they confiscated all religious buildings and drafted religious functionaries to become healthcare workers? Keep in mind that both the French and Russian Revolutionary governments point-blank confiscated church property in order to deal with their financial problems.
The interesting question is why would more readers not be willing to defend Ibn Scrooge in the second case when he is motivated simply by the desire to swim in a money pool of his own gold? If you are not a Muslim then Ibn Scrooge's desire to get into Muslim heaven should not demand greater public respect than his desire for his money bin. If you do not believe in economic rights, then Ibn Scrooge's right to make economic decisions with his life in all three cases should not trump the public interest in healthcare. The fact that Ibn Scrooge is motivated by the teachings of Islam should be irrelevant as it is perfectly believable that the government really is motivated by a desire to expand healthcare and not any animosity towards Islam.
It is important to recognize that there is always going to be someone out there, likely already holding a position of power who honestly believes that you are standing in the way of their "humanitarian" attempts to make a better world and that, therefore, the right, decent, and even loving thing to do is put you in prison, a slave labor camp or even execute you. The only thing that can stop that from happening is a belief in economic liberty. People have the right to make economic decisions regarding their personal lives, whether they are motivated by religion or narcissistic greed, even when that decision leads to an objectively worse outcome for society as a whole.