Is traveling a human right?
Tibor R. Machan
Liberty first had to do with the freedom to travel. In time it came to amount to a condition in which no one forces one to submit to another’s will, a condition of not being prevented by others from doing what one chooses to do. So, for example, free enterprise means no one is authorized to stop others from producing and trading; free press means there may be no bans on one’s decision to write and publish what one decides to. Of course, one may not be able to do much that one is free to do—I am free to sing operas but I am not able to do so. No one is stopping me from betting big bucks in Las Vegas but, alas, I have no big bucks to bet. It is one thing to be free to act, another to be capable of doing so, a point lost on many political thinkers and public policy proponents.
The matter I wish to explore here, very briefly, is whether a person has a right to the freedom travel. In one sense, of course, yes—everyone has the right to be free to travel because normally no one is authorized to prohibit it for others. But travel involves the use of resources and it isn’t true that everyone has the right to the resources that are required for travel. If one does, others may not interfere but if one doesn’t, one will not be able to travel. And what kind of resources are at issue?
For one, to travel, one needs some area where a trip can take place. A trip from Los Angeles to Japan, for example, usually requires fuel, a vehicle, some open route that connects the two places, etc. None of these is a free good. So although one has the right to undertake the trip, one may not have the ability to do so. And even the right to undertake the trip is something akin to the right to the pursuit of happiness—the result is not a right. No one has the right to be happy! That is something one needs to achieve. But all have the right to pursue it.
Most people travel by car and plane, though many still use a bike, motorized or not, or even a horse. But most importantly, in order to travel, one must have some sphere wherein the trip takes place—a road, a railway, a waterway, or airway. And these are not free goods by any means. Moreover, in a fully free society, in which there are but very minimal public spheres—those needed to administer the legal system (meaning where a court house, military base and police station may be located)—no one could simply enter some sphere and use it to travel from one place to another. In such a society roads would be privately built and owned, as would homes or apartment houses. And just as one may only enter and make use of these latter if those who own them give one permission—or have reached mutually agreeable terms of exchange—the same would hold for all the spheres where travel can take place.
Now for quite a while no need for buying or renting spheres of travel may have appeared necessary—like air, they appeared to be free goods. Yet what had been a free good once may not remain so as more and more people make use of it and it becomes scarce. The air mass, for example, is barely a free good, as are water masses. Land hasn’t been a free good for centuries, at least not where most people would want to live and work. The upkeep of these valuable spheres isn’t cheap. Nor do they benefit everyone equally—some people can do without much use of land or water while others wish to make a great deal of use of them (e. g., folks who like boating want a lot of water available for them, while golfer would prefer large parcels of land).
The belief that travel and its major tool, roads, is something that must be available to everyone in equal proportions is folly. Clearly not everyone wants to travel a great deal but, also, not all who do are willing to take care of what they make use of or pay others do it for them. Which is of course exactly what we learn from the doctrine of the tragedy of the commons: public realms tend to get neglected, overused, and depleted, whereas private realms get reasonably well cared for.
Perhaps the concern that’s most directly addressed by these considerations is environmentalism. If the principle of private property rights had been respected and protected for all the time that spheres or travel became scarce, there would arguably have not developed as much environmental abuse as many who concern themselves with these matters contend. What appear to be free goods simply do not get well taken care of and by treating travel as some kind of God given right of everyone—so most people believe they may go anywhere anytime the mood strakes them—a great deal of trouble comes to face us all.