When "Rights Thinking" blocks Progress

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright March 2016


"I've got my rights!" is potent thinking. It can have a lot of emotion behind it, and when it does it strongly shapes social policies.

Sadly, this emotion shapes policies against material progress far more often than it shapes them in favor of it. That is the topic of this essay.


Ever since the Industrial Revolution began producing surprisingly copious quantities of desirable material goods, people have been complaining about the inequalities that crop up in distributing those copious goods.

Marx and Engels are the highest profile among early complainers, and the socialist and communist ideals that have sprung from their literary works have been potent cause-creaters world wide since the 1850's. They are far from the only inspirers. "I've got my rights!" complainers have sprung from many other intellectual roots as well. Taking childhood, "It's not fair!" thinking into adulthood is the root of much social rights complaining.

The emotion is powerful, and a noble one. But, sadly, few social and economic implementations based on this emotion have worked well. Time and time again the social systems set up to create "workers paradises" or to "help the poor" have instead created impoverished societies filled with lots of hypocrisy and bellyaching. I call this evolution The Slippery Slope.

Why does this happen? Why can't this noble aspiration produce a heavenly result?

The Problems

Here are some of the roadblocks to the Equality Paradise.

Not enough stuff

The first problem is: there isn't enough stuff to go around. As much as equality aspirers would like it to be that the 1% have enough goods that spreading their extra around evenly would provide everyone with material paradise, it just isn't so. It would make things a little better, but not much.

The biggest problem, though, is that doing that this kind of spreading around changes the tools for more progress in the future into items that are consumed today. This means no more progress. Ouch!

Who is doing the distributing?

"We are all equal, but some are more equal than others." comes from Animal Farm, a book written by George Orwell and first published in 1945.

The decisions on what to make and how to share it don't happen spontaneously. It's complicated, and people -- real people -- must make the choices, and they should be clever in their choice making. If they aren't clever lots of waste is created. This means there is going to be inequality even in the most ideally equal communities -- there are going to be decision makers, and those who live with the decisions.

The problem that comes up here is who is watching the decision makers, and can the watchers know when good decisions are being made? If the watchers don't know, the problems of the Slippery Slope come up, and paradise is lost once again.

"Pay? This should be free!"

Getting something for free feels good... real good. This is a powerful emotion. Related: getting something by gaming the system in some way also feels real good.

The problem is that if everything is free, but quantities are limited, something else besides money becomes the choice maker.

A very common alternative is waiting in line -- you get something when your turn comes up. For many people waiting in line for their turn feels just fine -- human thinking is designed to support patience. In addition, while it may not be recognized as such, line waiting is a social activity.

Another alternative is the system gaming mentioned above. This is the emotional equivalent to line cutting. The "getting away with it" emotion is a big thrill for some people.

A variant that mixes line waiting and system gaming is something I call "hoop-jumping" -- when a person waits in line to fill out lots of forms or perform lots of rituals, and then gets their reward.

The problem with all these getting it for free activities is that they are time and effort wasters. All this waiting and hoop-jumping could be time and effort spent on making the world a better place -- as in, producing more goods and services for everyone to enjoy.


All these problems of waste, inefficiency and hypocrisy have dogged the Equality Paradise aspirations time and time again since the Industrial Revolution started.

But... the future can be different.

The different future: cyber deciders

One of the things coming for sure in our future is more automation. At some point all this automation will transfer to being controlled by artificial intelligence -- what I call cyber. In the future cyber will be more and more in charge, and making more of the decisions on how to produce and what to produce -- they will decide not only how to run a factory, but which factories to build.

If cyber also takes over the distributing decisions, too, then Rights Paradise of some sort can be reached. Much more than humans, the cyber can understand the limitations on what can be made, and they can keep the handing-out from becoming so large that the productive base is destroyed. This means that the equality they develop can dodge the Slippery Slope.

Wow! What a change.

So, at some point, those humans who aspire to Equality Paradise are going to have to make a hard choice: Are they ready to give up human control of deciding what to make and how to distribute it to achieve their paradise?

When they are, paradise can happen.

Further reading

This essay was inspired by reading this 27 Feb 16 Economist article, Power to the powerless A new electricity system is emerging to bring light to the world’s poorest. The key is persuading customers to pay., which describes the challenges faced in electrifying impoverished regions.

From the article:

"Governments and utilities in poor countries are often too cash-strapped to extend their grids. Part of the problem is widespread reluctance among users to pay for electricity. Customers who do not pay their mobile-phone bills can have their connection taken away remotely; electricity is harder to cut off, and easier to steal. This creates a vicious circle in which utilities lose money, reducing the funds available for improving and expanding supply, and further sapping users’ willingness to pay. “The real threat to energy access is that energy is not treated as a private good, but as a right,” says Michael Greenstone, an energy specialist at the University of Chicago. “And the problem with a right is that no one wants to pay for it.”"



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