Freedom to Trade as a Human Right

Over at EconLog, Alberto Mingardi reports on a quickly-deleted tweet from the UN Human Rights Office.  The tweet read:

Do you believe that free market fundamentalism-the belief in the infallibility of free market policies-is an urgent threat?

I am going to ignore the obvious mistake here (describing “free market fundamentalism” as believing in “the infallibility of free market policies”) because Alberto, who is far smarter and more eloquent than I, addressed that issue in his post.  No point spilling ink here rehashing it.  Rather, I want to focus more broadly on the question: is the freedom to trade a human right?

Let me begin with a quick definition.  The “free market” is merely a term used to describe  institutional exchange (that is, exchange occurring within a certain limited set of rules) between two or more parties without the interference of an outside group.  Markets needn’t be for just physical goods and services, either.  There is the marketplace for automobiles, and food, and haircuts, but also the marketplace for ideas (and this blog is my small contribution to this marketplace.  In this sense, I am no different from the corner-store salesman hocking his wares).  Markets may be physical, such as a storefront or a library, or they may be virtual, such as the Internet.  All that is necessary is for two or more people to form mutually beneficial exchange relationships, free of any outside coercion (for example, if someone were to force me to buy health insurance, and force someone else to sell it to me, that is not a free market.  Even though I, absent of coercion, would have bought insurance and the seller, absent of coercion, would have sold it to me, the presence of coercion makes this not a free transaction).*

Another thing we must consider is what are human rights?  This is an area that gets much more fuzzy.  While pretty much all ethical systems which recognize human rights agree that these rights exist simply because we are human (“unalienable,” to quote the US Declaration of Independence), what constitutes “unalienable” can vary greatly.  Some argue that only negative rights (that is, rights that do not compel action) are unalienable.  For example, the right to free speech is a negative right.  I have the right to say what I please, but no one has to give me a platform or even listen to me.  There is no action compelled.  In the past century, however, positive rights have become more and more accepted under the umbrella of “unalienable.”  A positive right is a right that compels action.  For example, the right to education requires someone to teach you.  It compels action on the part of another individual.  I am going to try and avoid this whole conversation.  Books have been written about this tension for centuries and I do not want to get bogged down in this post.

The concept of free markets rests on one major institution: property rights.  Each person owns his property and can exchange (or not) as he pleases.  I propose that property rights are a human right because they are indeed unalienable: at the very least, each person owns his body.  It is for this reason in particular that many civilizations find slavery so abhorrent. It is why rape is such a repulsive crime.  These things violate our most basic property: ourselves.

If, indeed, property rights are a human right, then it would follow that, in order to protect those rights, each person must be given full freedom to use his property as he sees fit (provided it does not violate another’s rights).  A man should be allowed to sell his labor (or the fruits of his labor) as he deems fit.**  This would necessarily include the ability to trade free from outside coercion, or as we have defined it above, the free market.

Thus, I propose to you, dear reader, that the free market is a human right, and not a threat to human rights.***

*There are other subtleties to free markets (for example, is a robbery a free market transaction because the mugger offers me my life in exchange for my wallet), but that is a discussion for another time.

**I think it is worth noting that property rights are a negative right.  One may do as he wishes with his property, but cannot compel anyone with his property.  I may own a gun, but I may not use it as a coercive force to take from anyone that which I have no claim on.

***The UN Human Rights Office may have some concerns about how free markets may lead to the infringement of other human rights.  This is possible, in the same sense that freedom of speech may lead to infringement of human rights (such as a peaceful rally may lead to a violent protest).  However, please note the caveat I have placed throughout my discussion of free markets: actions are free to occur so long as they do not violate another’s rights.  This is true of any right, not just the right to trade.