Rationalistic Rights

 Posted by on 5 April 2004 at 10:41 am  Uncategorized
Apr 052004

If you plug your laptop in at the airport or train station, are you stealing electricity? According to many of the folks commenting on this Samizdata post, the answer is clearly YES. Since you do not have permission to use the electrical outlet, you are a thief, albeit a small one.

Such an answer seems to me to imply a very rationalistic understanding of rights. Most businesses are happy to provide complimentary services to their customers. Although we may ask where the restrooms are, we do not ask our waitress whether we have permission to use them. When we buy a latte at Starbucks, we do not ask permission to consume some of the sugar or take a napkin. Such social conventions facilitate human interaction and trade by establishing a default, a default which may nonetheless still be overridden by express statements. Notably, that default is limited to a certain range of reasonable action. We certainly do not have implicit permission redecorate the restaurant’s bathroom or to take hundreds of napkins.

Although the phenomena of plugging in laptops is a relatively recent one, there is little reason to suspect that the convention is resented or unwelcome to business owners. If it were, we would expect to see blocked off outlets, stickers on outlets forbidding plugging in, and so on. We would expect business owners to throw out plugged-in laptop users or perhaps even call the police to arrest them.

People often don’t notice these conventions of trade, precisely because they are so completely taken for granted. (One of the hazards and excitements of foreign travel is that such conventions do change.) Nonetheless, they are a real and important part of social interactions, one which claims about rights violations ought to be sensitive. To ignore them is to treat rights as floating abstractions unconnected to actual facts about social interaction… and that only leads to trouble.

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