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The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes Hardcover – March 1, 1999


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 255 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (March 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393046702
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393046700
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.7 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,134,801 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Whittle away the dense academic prose, and the message of The Cost of Rights is disarmingly simple: as Robert A. Heinlein once put it, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." If legal rights are to be considered meaningful, argue coauthors Stephen Holmes and Cass Sunstein, the existence of a government is required to first establish and then to enforce those rights. Running a government costs money; therefore, paying taxes is necessary in order to support the communal infrastructure that upholds individual rights. Each of the book's 14 chapters is essentially a variation on this theme, considering the proposition with regard to property rights, the effect of scarcity upon liberty, or the ways in which religious liberty contributes to social stability, all leading back to the conclusion that "government is still the most effective instrument available by which a politically charged society can pursue its common objectives, including the shared aim of securing the protection of legal rights for all."

From Publishers Weekly

Perhaps no subject has dominated American discourse in the past 200 years as much as the question of rights?what they are, who has them and under what circumstances. Holmes (Passions and Constraint), a political science professor at Princeton and NYU Law School, and Sunstein (Free Markets and Social Justice), a law professor at the University of Chicago, argue persuasively that all rights are political. That is, rights are not moral absolutes, independent of government constraints, but "public goods," funded by taxes, administered by government and subject to distributive justice. According to the authors, no right is costless. Even so-called "negative rights," such as the right to hold property free of government interference, must be supervised and maintained by tax-funded courtrooms, police and fire stations. The authors profess to be violating a "cultural taboo... against the 'costing out' of rights enforcement." While interesting and well argued, the book isn't that bold. It's a reply to free-lunch liberals and to law-and-economics libertarians such as Richard Epstein and Charles Murray, who, in the authors' view, delude themselves with 18th-century "double-think" about their "immaculate independence" from the government. But Sunstein and Holmes don't really address how the rights debate has evolved. Instead of considering workfare or the myriad other ways rights have expanded and contracted in the 1990s, their book merely restates?albeit concisely?the old terms of the debate.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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2.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Trader on January 18, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This book covers an important issue that is rarely bought up: liberty, rights etc. depend of an enforcement mechanism.
And this enforcement mechanism is government. Weak governments (such as those of the current Russia) cannot guarantee property rights or any other rights for their citizens. Anyone who feels they can establish their rights without government should visit Somalia and see how easy or difficult it is in the absence of government.
How would you establish right to a plot of land, for instance, without a title, some means of enforcing property laws ?
The Founding Fathers most certainly recognized the value of government -- thats why they wrote the Constitution, because the Articles of Confederation proved inadequate. They also provided the government with the means to fund itself -- through tarrifs, which are just another form of taxes. This is something the authors do indeed support, and at least two of the 1-star reviews lead me to conclude the authors never got beyond the title.
Finally, the Constition does indeed provide powers to the States. But is unclear why this should necessarily please someone who claims that governments take away all rights, since the states are also run by governments. In fact, historically, the states have had practically all the powers (public schools, eminent domain, property taxes) etc. etc. that libertarian types find distasteful.
This book is NOT a call for higher taxes, and it recognizes the tax-and-spend problems as well.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By JNeeley@mail.utexas.edu on July 4, 2001
Format: Hardcover
At the very least, reading the Cost of Rights will broaden your prespective beyond the narrowly drawn libertarian/liberal/conservative catagories that have become so ingrained in modern American political thought. Many of the points made in the book are such that they seem obvious once you have read them, though you never in a million years would have thought of them yourself. It's true, for example, that the so-called "negative rights" (rights against governmental interferance) are just as much dependant on governmental enforcement and hence taxpayer dollars as are welfare, medicare, and medicaid. Police forces, court trials, governmental oversight all cost money, and without such well run institutions one's rights are all but nonexistent. It is also the case, though we often forget it, that resources are insufficiant to fund all the rights that people could ever justifiably want or demand.
All of this is well and good, but in Holmes and Sunstein's hands, it fails to translate ino a workable agenda for American politics. Having read the book, I feel that I've gained a broader perspective on legal and political issues, but the practical effects of that broader perspective seem to be nil. In the second half of the book, the authors also begin to confuse legal rights with moral rights, leading to some confused argumentation.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Jennifer on May 5, 2003
Format: Hardcover
While it wasn't the most exciting book I've read, "The Cost of Rights" was a refreshing twist on the taxes issue. It challenged opponents of the current tax system or any tax system to think critically on the subject. I felt that Holmes' and Sunstein's approach was more effective than a listing of statistics. Rather than explaining economic reasons for taxes, they brought it to a level that related more to readers. Everyone has a reason to be interested in the preservation of his or her own rights. Without taxes for government support, we could not be guaranteed equal representation before the law. Taxes pay for law enforcement and other government services that are vital to our liberty. Without taxes, no one would every truly own property. Taxes serve as the standard for American's to exist and be governed by. They do not discern our morals, but instead preserve our rights. In "The Cost of Rights", the case for taxes was presented in such a way that I couldn't see liberty without some sort of tax system.
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14 of 20 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 20, 2000
Format: Hardcover
It is the fashion to disparage government and all its works these days. Sunstein and Holmes have given this timely reminder that Constitutional and property rights only have meaning if they can be enforced BY the government (that is, by courts, executive agencies, police departments, disaster relief, and the like). The book is flawed to the extent that seems to call for affirmative rights to public services (social workers, police) to be enforced by judges. Such a state of affairs would totally undercut the majority-rule principle of democratic society. However, the book is a welcome antidote to the trendy, bumper-sticker diatribes against the evils of government. We need a serious dialogue on the proper (and limited) functions of government in the new global economy, not more slogans. If you like this book, also look at Garry Wills's "Necessary Evil" (which does a better job with historical background) and Brinkley's "New Federalist Papers."
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14 of 20 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 14, 1999
Format: Hardcover
The authors make a valiant attempt to remove an artificial distinction between 'rights' and 'entitlements' , a distinction often used by right wing commentators to add moral stature to right wing parties chosen methodology of rewarding their constituency. The point is obvious, freedoms, like benefits, incur costs, borne by society as a whole. The political debate should therefore always be a question of cost and benefit, rather than some idealised debate about rights or entitlements. The authors take a long time to explain this point, but given previous reviews, perhaps not long enough.
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