Friday, March 27, 2009

Rights and Privileges

Do humans have rights governments recognize (or don't), or do people only have privileges government grants (or doesn't)? I suspect that your answer to this question will determine your politics to a certain degree.

If you believe the latter, my guess is that you are a pragmatist whose thinks the government has to "do something" to offset the "excesses" of the free market economy -- and that we especially have to "do something" now more than ever. THis idea that government only grants privileges is a deeply conservative idea -- and by deeply conservative, I mean that it's an idea which precedes the Enlightenment. It places the government in charge of the people, who are incapable of doing anything for themselves without the wisdom of government there to help them.

If you believe in rights, my guess is that you are a democrat -- an idealist of some sort. What is then at issue among democrats is the limits of rights. What are rights, properly speaking? You have those who believe in negative rights and those who believe in positive rights. Negative rights are those which prevent others from doing something to you. Such rights include the rights to life, liberty, expression, and property -- and the proper role of government is to protect those rights from others, including government(s). Positive rights are those which grant you something -- they are, in fact, privileges. Such rights include the rights to health care, a certain income, education, and work -- and the proper role of government is to make sure everyone gets these rights. The difference between the two is that nobody has to give up anything (except a life of crime) for everyone to have their negative rights respected, but somebody has to give up something (or be enslaved) to ensure everyone gets their positive rights. If we have a right to health care, somebody has to do something to provide you with that service. If we have a right to life, all somebody has to do is leave you alone and not kill you. A right to health care means that you have a right to the labor of a doctor -- that the doctor has to serve you, no matter what. There is a term for those who have to serve another, and do not have a choice but to serve. Thus, a government that recognizes positive rights will eventually see the need to nationalize any and all businesses which provide those services, meaning a slave economy is reintroduced, even if it is a kind of wage-slave economy. The difference is that those with the most abilities are enslaved to those with the fewest. Of course, the right to an education has resulted in a massive reduction in those who have any sort of real abilities at all, so the system does tend to undermine itself.

With the idea of positive rights, privilege and many pre-market conditions are reintroduced. The difference is that privilege and the slave economy are turned on their heads under democratic governments. But privilege is privilege and slavery is slavery, even if the common people are the privileged masters this time around. Slavery vanished in most of the world because it was a far less efficient way of getting work done than were free market conditions. It seems we will have to learn that lesson again (and again).
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