Saturday, July 04, 2009

Declaration of independence: Positive vs. negative rights


After so many years of Americans aspiring to live up to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, with much success, critics of America have changed their tune. It used to be that this country failed to be true to those principles but as that has gradually - and at times abruptly - changed, critics had to find something else to beef about.

And, sure enough, they found it, in that highly questionable doctrine of "positive rights" first laid out in 1944 in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's so-called Second Bill of Rights. The tact now is to say, yes, the founders did promote the doctrine of individual negative rights - which are prohibitions barring people from intruding on others, recognizing everyone's rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness (property) - but these aren't really the rights in need of government protection. What needs to be protected, they argue, are the entitlements everyone has to material support from government, for which others must pay through taxes. In short, these new "rights" amount to nothing less than the imposition of involuntary servitude on taxpayers!

But this is a hoax. No such rights exist. Indeed, the entire point of rights talk is to set borders around each of us, borders that may only be crossed with permission. For example, someone needs to ask your permission to enter your home or drive your car. If somebody asks you to stop saying or writing certain things - you must consent or they must desist. Those are examples of the negative, or freedom, rights all humans have because of their nature as moral agents. A moral agent requires the freedom to exercise moral choice, for better or for worse.

Only if a person invades another's realm is there justification for interference (in self-defense). This is an individualist social-political outlook closely associated with the American founding but it is now being drastically undermined.

These days, no sooner does one speak up in support of individualism than one will be accused of wanting to isolate individuals, to destroy human community life. This is plain wrong and either a misunderstanding or an out-an-out attempt at distortion. Just because adults require independence of mind and a sphere of personal authority, which is secured by protecting their basic rights, it doesn't mean people do not greatly benefit from community life. There is little that's more satisfying than the associations people forge with their fellows: marriage, family, companies, teams, choruses, orchestras and myriad others.

Alas, there is one way of forming communities that is unsuited to people: coercively, when they are herded into groups they do not choose based on their own understanding and goals - that is, by violating their rights. Prisons are such involuntary communities, and the only reason they are supposed to exist is to house people who refuse to live peacefully with their fellows.

None but the crudest defense of individualism omits that when individuals come together, much of what makes their lives worth living stems from their togetherness. And, yes, as children we are involuntary members of one community, the family, at least until we grow up and have free choice. That, indeed, is what parents and guardians ought to aim for when they raise children, to prepare them all for becoming competent, loving, responsible and adventurous independent adults.

Yet forcibly grouping people immediately undermines this by depriving the young of their opportunity to hone their skills at making decisions for themselves, decisions that are usually quite unlike the decisions others need to make. That's because we all are unique in many respects, while at the same time also much alike. As one of my favorite philosophers, the comic actor Steve Martin, put it in his novel "The Pleasure of My Company": "People, I thought. These are people. Their general uniformity was interrupted only by their individual variety."

Of course, much of this is evident from the history of the more Draconian and brutal attempts to make us all one, from ancient Sparta to societies in the 20th century. But, sadly, too many people hold on to the vision of human associations without remembering that the "human" must be very closely heeded when one embarks on community life.

Human beings, more than anything else in the world, are individuals, with minds of their own, which, however much they learn from others, must get into operation from their own initiative. While other beings are pretty much hardwired to do the right thing by their nature, our nature is that we must learn what that right thing is and then embark on doing it of our own free will. This, mainly, is the source of individuality.

Forgive me for bringing in a bit of personal history, but I do have some experience to draw upon here, having lived under communism for much of my early years. And my father was an avid fascist, supporting the Nazis. Neither of these political systems offer a promising community life; nor do communities that try to go just a bit in those political directions.

Human communities are, indeed, marvelous but only when they do not quash the human individual. When they do, when they try to compromise the principles of individualism, look out. They will try to lie and cheat and bamboozle since only in doing so can coercive community life be made credible. They will emphasize the fabulous goals and forget about the vicious means by which they propose to reach them, like conscript armies or schools or any other collective endeavors we are forced to join.

The American founders knew that the central public good is securing for us our rights. Everything else in society is to be done by individuals and voluntary groups, not the government. This false doctrine of entitlements, of positive "rights," fundamentally undermines their project.

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