— R.H. Coase, “The Problem of Social Cost,” in The Firm, the Market, and the Law (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 155.
Maybe because ethical approaches to rights have never been persuasive to me, I find Coase’s conception of rights as tradeable goods extremely appealing. The establishment of a framework for rights is part of the process of spontaneous order, or institutional change in the direction of growing complexity. Within this changing institutional framework, humans allocate rights either through the market process or through the legal/political process.
We can take property rights — from which, some say, all other rights stem — as an example. There is an inherent interest in establishing property rights as a result of the basic fact of scarcity. It’s a means of reducing conflict. But, property rights didn’t come in a bundle. They had to be developed over time, with all of their complexities. This explains the gradation we see when we look at different rights frameworks in different societies. To me, it only makes sense to speak of some rights as “natural” if by “natural” we mean that they are logical consequences of certain conditions of human existence. But, this doesn’t say much to me. By that definition, all aspects of human civilization are natural. This term, however, hides the process of change, growing sophistication and complexity, that drives the process of the creation of rights: not just property rights, but all kinds of rights. It also disallows for alternative directions of development.
It also follows that since rights change, new rights can replace old rights. Terming a set of rights as “natural rights” packages them as sacred and immutable. I understand the appeal of wanting to protect rights from predation by assuming them “inalienable,” but from a sociological point of I view I don’t find much sense in this perspective. Of course, by our definition of “natural” above, any new rights would be just as natural as existing rights! Hopefully one can see why I think the word “natural” lacks meaning. Instead of thinking of rights as conditions which transcend time, we should think of them as goods (which also have a relation with institutions) that are developed and allocated over time.