Words like "rights," "freedoms", "liberties", "duties", and so on describe crucial ideas but are often used ambiguously in politics and the law. Lawyer Wesley Hohfeld early in the twentieth century in the United States developed a classification and technical terminology for these ideas that goes far towards eliminating much of this ambiguity.
First Hohfeld defined these ideas as relationships between persons. Second, he organized them into binary opposites and correlatives. Here are the binary opposites -- you either have them or you don't:
(I'm substituting "freedom" where Hohfield and his followers have used "privilege" , "liberty", or even worse "permission" -- for reasons that should become apparent below). With respect to a given subject matter and under a given set of laws governing that subject matter, you either have a right or no right, never both. And you either have a freedom from duty or a duty, never both.
The most crucial aspect of this terminology is that these ideas are also related as correlatives -- the existence of one implies the existence of the other. Thus
right of A => duty of (at least) B
freedom of A => no-right of any other
Hohfeld's terminology is often described (e.g. by the legal scholars Corbin and Singer) in terms of "the state" that whose enforcement actions create rights (and thus duties) and whose lack of enforcement action creates "privileges" or "permssions". Regular readers of the blog will see at least one problem with this approach, but does Hohfeld terminology make sense independently of "the state"?
Not only do these terms make sense without "the state", they make even more sense without "the state" and even make sense independently of the existence of anything like a state. Stateless scenarios help to illuminate the meanings of Hohfeld's terms, and getting rid of "the state" will shed light on analysis of the origins of rights. For example, by distinguishing a "right" from a "freedom", I will create a much clearer description of John Locke's theory of a "social compact" which highlights some of its strengths and weaknesses. This generalization of Hohfeld terminology also allows us to apply it to real world situations involving conflicting jurisdictions and laws rather than the mythological monolithic state.
Let's start with a Mr. Robinson Crusoe stranded alone on his tropical island. Crusoe is able to do anything he likes without legal or other coercive restriction, or indeed without a negative response by another person of any kind -- he has perfect freedom. But he can't sue or otherwise punish anybody, so he has, in Hohfeldian terms, no rights. Robinson Crusoe expemplfies the correlatives "freedom" and "no right".
Now let's strand a Mr. Geoffrey Dalrymple on the island with Mr. Crusoe. In a state of pure amorality and lawlessness (which is to be sure purely theoretical and in practice would not last for long), there are no rights of any kind. Crusoe has no duties and thus perfect freedom to do anything (kill Dalrymple, steal his food, and so on), and correlatively Dalrymple has no rights. Dalrymple for his part has no duties and thus perfect freedom, and and Crusoe has no rights.
Do we require a state to introduce rights into this situation? In fact we don't even need the introduction of a third party. To introduce rights and duties into this situation, Crusoe and Dalrymple merely need to enter into an agreement, a la Locke. This agreement could be as informal as a common cultural understanding or as formal as carving words on stone. Let's say Crusoe agrees not to commit a tort (battery, theft, etc.) against Dalrymple and Dalrymple agrees to not commit a tort against Crusoe. Crusoe now has rights (defined by tort law as he understands it, unless stated explicitly) against Dalrymple and Dalrymple now has tort rights (defind by tort law as he understands it, unless stated explicitly) against Crusoe. Crusoe correlatively has duties towards Dalrymple, and vice versa, and both correspondingly have their freedoms reduced. They have traded some freedoms for some rights. (This is a much clearer way of saying, in the older terminology in which "freedom", "rights", and so on were overlapping and often indistinct concepts, that people have traded away some rights in order to preserve other rights).
Of course the consequences of a right -- in particular the remedy available for the breach of a right -- is hardly the same as in a mature legal system with courts, police, etc. If one of Crusoe's rights is breached, for example by Dalrymple stealing his food, his only remedy is to take an action himself -- for example, steal back some food. Crusoe and Dalrymple would be wise to specify such remedies in their agreement. We can see how a third party, or even better courts and police, would help enforce such a remedy, but they, and much less "the state", are not necessary for the basic Hohfeldian ideas of right and duty to arise.
Corbin, in describing Hohfeldian terms, invoked "a giant" as a metaphor for "the state." It's easy to see that if a wise giant lived on the island it would be profitable for Crusoe and Dalrymple to agree to use that giant to hear their cases and enforce the remedy they had agreed upon. This corresponds to the "choice of forum" clause found in many modern contracts. But let's say there were two wise giants on the island, Giganticus and Gargantua. This multiplicity of giants would certainly confuse Corbin's (and Singer's) explanations of Hohfeld, but is in fact readily explicable in Hohfeldian and choice-of-forum terms. There are often great advantages to division of labor. Crusoe and Dalrymple could thus agree to divide up the subject matters of their agreement. They might, for example, choose Giganticus to adjudicate and enforce tort and property law, and Gargantua to adjudicate and enforce contract law (include this meta-contract).
Alternatively, if Giganticus is strong and Gargantua is wise, they might agree that Gargantua should decide the cases regarding any subject matter (i.e. act as a judiciary) and Giganticus should enforce them (i.e. act as an executive). As another alternative , the giants could agree on the division of subject matter jurisdiction betweem them, or divide between them adjudication and enforcement, and force their agreement on Crusoe and Dalrymple.
Each of these scenarios is a plausible one. None involve "the state", but each involve rights and correlative duties as well as freedoms and correlative lack of rights. The probability that the giants would enforce their own brand of law, rather than just enforcing whatever Crusoe and Dalrymple agree to, casts some doubt on Locke and other "social contract" theorists as providing an actual history rather than an ideal of the formation of legal systems or states. More likely is the model of Mancur Olson, in which "stationary bandits" out-competed "roving bandits" in the coercively competitive business of collecting taxes and thereby formed states (and, I'd add, formed other kinds of political property rights as well). All fodder for future posts.
Ref: Hohfeld, W. N. Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Judicial Reasoning, ed. by W.W. Cook (1919); reprint, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, (1964).
UPDATE: I have clarified my recasting of Locke's analysis and corrected a typo pointed out by a commentor.