30 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2000
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.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on July 4, 2001
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.
16 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on May 20, 2000
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."
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 2013
It's important to point out that the reason books like this get "Low" star ratings is not that they are bad - it's because they are so good. Libertarians and Tea Partiers along with like minded anti-government radicals often see these books come up and vote them down out of spite or annoyance. Cost of Rights is wonderful book for those looking for an argument against common Libertarian "Taxes are Theft" argument. How did they come to earn all this wealth? Aren't we said to deserve the wealth that we earn? Why however, are the nexus of public and civic goods that make our wealth creation possible, supposed to be free? They cannot be. Some things must be done by everyone if they are to be done at all, and we all owe the ability to create our wealth back into the system that made it possible. This book is a great articulation of the need for public goods. One of the best Anti-Libertarian books ever written.
9 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on May 5, 2003
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.
15 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on June 14, 1999
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.
on November 29, 2013
Liberty depends on the institution of private property (PP). PP is not a known collection of specific things but an exclusionary right for managing limited resources in our society that requires an expensive, tax paid system for enforcing PP boundaries (preventing me from lying, cheating,stealing and/or using force to take your stuff) and for determining ambiguous PP boundaries, for example, determining through legislation, regulation, or the courts when your PP uses (uses are an essential legal right of PP) injure me and mine and regulating your uses. Liberty also depends on public investments in roads, education, and health, which are also expensive and require taxation. Finally, individual liberty depends upon political support from We the People because PP is justified as it promotes the "general welfare," as the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution suggests. These conclusions are not the the specific gist of The Cost of Rights, but are a general reduction of it.
All individual rights are exclusionary, and PP, which is a good summary of individual rights--as James Madison observed in his little essay "Property" in 1792--certainly is exclusionary. If I have PP in something, I can exclude others from interfering with it whether it is speech, religious practice, or land and bank accounts. John Locke championed PP as a natural right to contradict the view of Robert Filmer of the Monarchist Party that the monarch owned all land. But Locke never intended that land, income, or other resources of individual ownership (property) were not subject to taxation for the general welfare.
Because the private uses of resources are potentially unlimited, the boundaries of PP are often ambiguous. To serve the general welfare and prevent such things as excessive and harmful resource inequality, the fine-tuning of what people can and cannot do through private action with their resources is continually necessary, although at the same time there need be considerable certainty in the system so that people can plan their resource use most productively. Likewise, taxation to provide public investment for private production, including for such things as instituting public health care, is an important part of protecting PP and at the same time promoting the general welfare.
The authors of the Cost of Rights are brilliant legal scholars who provide us with a thoughtful understanding of individual liberty and the union of We the People.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 2013
Tea Partiers and Libertarians who rail against taxes and Big Government won't like this book. Professors Sunstein and Holmes persuasively support their main contention that all legally enforceable rights depend upon government and "cannot be protected and enforced without public funding and support..It is implausible for be 'for rights' and 'against government.'"
The right to a jury trial, for example, can cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars per trial. Conservatives champion property rights, but it takes public funding to protect those rights from trespassers, thieves, and those who don't pay their debts. In short, without the power to tax and spend, property rights would not be secure.
If rights aren't enforced when abridged, then they remain "a hollow promise." In a state the nature, the powerful do whatever they want to everyone else. Consequently, "statelessness spells rightlessness."
The authors argue that there are significant public costs to protect rights, and most of those costs -- such as for the right to vote -- are funded by taxes, not by user fees. Rights require remedies, which usually come through the judicial system or regulatory agencies. Uniform and fair enforcement of rights can be expensive, and a passive and weak state will be ineffective in doing the job.
Americans would do well to recognize the public costs of rights so they can decide about tradeoffs when dealing with limited public resources. How much due process, for example, are people entitled to? How much should we spend to monitor the law enforcers to prevent the abuse or rights? If more resources are devoted to protect one right, will another right go unprotected?
The authors also contend that rights can't be absolute, even though Americans on both sides of the political spectrum employ absolutist rhetoric about their favorite rights. "All rights are protected to a degree, and this degree depends partly on budgetary decisions." Officials entrusted with enforcing legal rights invariably face hard decisions about which rights to allocate scarce public resources to.
But nothing that costs money can be absolute, since resources are scarce. In addition, "a right is a power, and any power can be abused." Freedom of speech, for example, is restricted when it comes to perjury, attempted bribery, price-fixing, conspiracy, child porn, and so on. One right can conflict with another, such as the rights of biological grandparents versus the rights of parents to give a child up for adoption.
This book is less persuasive about a related issue, namely whether there is too much emphasis on rights and too little on responsibilities, and they deny there has been any wholesale decline in responsible behavior in recent decades. In Bowling Alone, however, Robert Putnam exhaustively documents a steady decline in volunteerism and community involvement in this country since the 1960s.
In an era when anti-government rhetoric has gained popularity, The Cost of Rights is nonetheless useful in pointing out the real public costs of enforcing rights, and the fact that unenforced rights are worthless.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
If you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, perhaps you should also not judge a book by its title. While this title seems like a natural cure for somnambulism, next to sex and death, I found the content very interesting.
Since our founding, many Americans have believed that taxes have robbed us of our freedom, that it is big government imposing its will on a grudging public, and that taxes and liberties are antithetical. Authors, Stephen Holmes and Cass Sunstein make a simple counter proposition: liberty depends on taxes. Liberty costs money. Without money their could be no freedom and without a government there would be no one to ensure that our rights were preserved. Government is not some outside force that dominates our political and social fabric. The authors contend that government is the most effective means for "a politically organized society [to] pursue its common objectives, including the shared aim of securing the protection of legal rights for all."
Even negative liberties, a term which means that the government imposes restraining forces upon itself in dealing with its citizens, cost money e.g. the recent ruling in which religious extremists are allowed to desecrate the funeral services and burial of our servicemen and women, required a government intervention such as the Supreme Court, and may still require government intervention, such as polic, in protecting mourners or those who taunt them out of misguided religious zeal. Again, all these liberties are costs that we accept. The authors find even negative rights are positive.
If the cost of certain liberties are too much as some citizens claim, then they are unwilling for their taxes to be used to pay for them, or the citizen-government will simply decide that these costs are too high. A case in point is the rich kid who gets into trouble, whose parents can retain topnotch lawyers for the defense of their son. This cannot be said of the kid from the ghetto who is arrested. Can the government pay for the each and every citizen getting a reputable lawyer for every defendant? Maybe, but do they want to? No. That liberty or right is a price government finds too much.
The citizen might object to paying taxes for healthcare for the poor, while already paying taxes for veterans, who are wounded, injured, or just old. In fact taxes for welfare actually began after the Civil War in providing prostheses and medical attention to the veterans.
Liberties are choices, and the choices depend on the money available to enforce them. Each tax does not have to be listed as a taxable item in the Constitution for the taxes to be valid and legal, as some misguided interpretations of the document suggest. That argument is most common on "hot button" issues such as prayer in public. One side might claim that it is freedom of speech demanding government support while the other side believes it is imposing a religious belief and violates their freedom.
The book is divided into four sections: why a penniless state cannot protect rights; why rights cannot be absolutes; why rights entail responsibilities, understanding rights as a bargain, and the public character of private freedoms. These sections have chapters of their own.
Twice now in a short time, I have found a valuable source for a segment of the public that needs it the most, will probably not because of one of the authors' name--Cass Sunstein. He is vilified on right wing radio and Fox TV even though his scholarship in the law is evident in his multiple publications. The authors are not advocating a particular political stance. They are dispassionate in their description of the relationship between liberties and taxes. Their simple claim is that liberty does not survive without a government or taxes.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, "...to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men."
13 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on February 5, 2002
As the authors say at some passage in the text, biblically simple ideas can make a profound difference. They say this when it comes to stress the importance of values like truth, honesty and integrity. We could also say the same about "loving your neighbor as yourself", the core of equality and reciprocity. This book is an example of how you can do much by sticking to simple assumptions. I must say that I appreciate Sunstein and Holmes a lot, and try to read all that thy write.
Steven Holmes and Cass Sunstein have made a strong case, in this and their other writings, that while we can appreciate and defend free enterprise, private property, private media, free exercise of religion, and so on, we still need a strong State to impose liberal constraints on private power.
In fact, that's what classical social contract theory is all about. The State is created by a social contract to protect individuals from one another, since the state of nature is a state of war between men, in which man is a wolf to other man.
Historically, the liberal revolutions were fought against not only absolute monarchs, but also against authoritarian churches, catholic and protestant, that used State power as a secular arm ("braccio seculare") to impose their own dogmas to believers and non believers, thus excercising an undue "power over the hearts of man" (Baruch Spinoza).
While we should advocate a strong marketplace of ideas (including religious ones), and while we should appreciate religion contribution to civic virtues, we still have to protect our liberal institutions from ilegitimate attempts to get these institutions under the control of iliberal and anti-liberal religious dogmas that want to fight equal religious liberty for all citizens and groups alike, believers and non-believers, men and women, adults and children, black and white, gay and straight. That's what separation of religious communities and State is all about.
When we think of Enron, for instance, we realize that corporations can be a Leviathan to many defenseless citizens, by totally destroying their life savings and prospects, with profound psicological consequences. That's plain evil. More, we realize that some already rich man will evade their duties of citizenship and civility (v.g. the duty of paying taxes) to get even more rich.
I am in favor of a strong market economy. It allows for human creativity, it creates wealth, it creates habits of work, trust and tolerance, it decentralizes authority, and by doing this it can further human rights.
But I think that only a robust liberal State, with strong legislative, administrative and judicial branches, can counter the threat to liberty, security and well being that some corporations here and there may represent. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton said. Only a strong liberal State can make, market economy both possible and credible.
Originally liberals are defenders of the State, an institution tipical of a civilized society. John Locke is the main example here. The liberal State is a mark of rationalization and civilization, as german philosopher G.F. Hegel would put it. That's why Oliver Wendell Holmes used to say that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society. I totally agree with that. Liberal thought fears both authoritarian states, weak states or anarchy. In all these situations the strongest will prevail at the expense of the weak.
Of course much needs to be done to better the State, to make it more just, transparent and efficient. A lot can be done, if there is the political will to do this. One of the reasons why state reform is so difficult has to do with the way private interests, lobbies, and naked preferences take the dominance and try to use the monopoly of legitimate coercion to further their own ends. That's why a civic republican liberalism is so important when it comes to reform the State.
I think there is plenty of room for a strong and commited "intelligent design movement" in politics and institution building that is able to come up with liberating public institutions that support a liberating private sphere.
But one thing is certain: evading the cost of rights will, in the end, be evading their benefits too. Sunstein and Holmes... we got it.