Column on “the Right to Travel”

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.

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