Monday, June 02, 2008

Hijacking Individual Rights

Tibor R. Machan

When John Locke identified, in serious and reasonable detailed ways, the nature of human political liberty--as a natural right of every human being--for a good bit political thinkers in the West were in awe. What a notion--it is not governments that are sovereign but individuals persons! Much of the political universe went topsy-turvy for a while. Law books were reworked, myths about inherited titles got busted. A revolution was spawned, with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in America as its most significant consequence.

But all this was, of course, a bit too good to be true. Very soon a bunch of prominent thinkers--apologists of the state--began to undermine Locke’s discovery. Jeremy Bentham, for example, ridiculed the idea of natural, unalienable--in his work Anarchical Fallacies he wrote that “Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible [that is, unalienable] rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.” Bentham was an extreme empiricist and since natural rights is a normative idea, an idea about how we ought to related to each other, he scoffed at it, regarded it unfounded in observable fact.

Henceforth Locke’s natural rights, including the right to life or liberty, became less and less respected by political thinkers. One result was that instead of the original negative version, as Locke laid it out--a prohibition against invaders--various critics began to defend so called positive rights.

The Lockean idea of the right to liberty implied that no one may intrude upon anyone--it was supposed to be a “No trespass” sign. Only if invited are others admitted into one’s life and one’s property--“person and estate,” in Locke’s language. But with that idea becoming less and less well respected, all hell broke loose and nowadays rights are being peddled as entitlements to what others did or owned. This is the origin of today’s dominant doctrine of welfare rights--people believe that others may be forced to work for them, to pay for what they need and want, that they have a right to other’s lives and property. Ergo, the triumph of the welfare state, not of the fully free society sketched so well in the Declaration of Independence.

Of course there are many who accept what Locke discovered and reject the fiction of positive or welfare rights, unearned entitlements. Their view accords well with moral philosophy as well as common sense.

Why would others have any claim on one’s life and property if both of these belong to oneself? And why would they not belong to oneself? One’s life is certainly not anyone else’s and what comes from the productive activities of this life, namely, one’s property, doesn’t belong to anyone else either. The only legitimate way other people can come to share one’s life and property is if their owner willingly parts with them. I may choose to work for someone, as an act of generosity or in return for payment; I may choose to share my resources with others, again as a gift or in exchange for something they might be willing to do for me or give me.

But this excellent idea turned out to be radical and still seems quite unfamiliar, even odd, to millions across the globe. They hold on to the ancient fiction that people belong to some tribe, nation, ethnic group, clan, society, state, nation or some other band. The fact that such a position means really nothing more fancy than that some other people get to rule you, that not you but others own you, that you are a subject or even slave of others, doesn’t sink in for too many folks because there is always some kind of sophisticated story--narrative, in today’s language--provided to justify it. You belong to the community! We are together and you must subjugate yourself to the greater whole, and so forth and so on. That deceptive term “we” manages to hoodwink millions into letting a few self-anointed leaders run the show, take hold of people’s labor and resources and use these as they see fit. And if you don’t comply, even simply refuse to agree, you are dubbed some kind of anti-social cretin.

People have free will--despite what so many thinkers now want to claim, namely, that we are moved about by impersonal forces--and they can think up lots of pseudo-justifications to make us all into their peons. They can persuade themselves that when they think of something that appeals to them, they are authorized to coerce us all to support the idea, never mind about our plans, goals, hopes, and aspirations.

This is how a very good idea, the unalienable individual rights of everyone, got to be perverted and corrupted into the idea that your life and works don’t really belong to you at all but to “us,” meaning, the few who perpetrate the ruse.

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