Sunday, August 18, 2013

Political Philosophy 2: Rights and Responsibilities, pt. 1

I. Introduction

               Moving beyond the basic nature of human beings is the extension of rights that we ascribe to them, and the nature of those rights depends greatly on or view of the relationship of one man to another, and in a larger sense, one man to all men (or man to society).  As an American, the sensibility of rights is something that is nearly bred into us, a persistent word found in countless messages about our country, our history, and our neighbors that we have heard since birth.  Despite the prevalence of the word, the concepts that back it have a highly varied set of parameters and assumptions.  At the heart of these is the separation between rights viewed negatively, that is, rights that are only bounded by another individual’s infringement upon them, and rights viewed positively, that is, rights that are bounded by a person’s lack of something.  With little congregation are the ideas about whence these rights originate; are they bequeathed by God unto all individuals, are they apportioned out by government or nationality, or are they merely illusory?  Finally, the possessor of rights must be defined; is it the individual or the collective?

II. Negative and Positive Rights

               The divide between the concept of negative and positive rights is where the greatest points of conflict arise in modern political discourse, yet the various perspectives tend to take their vision of rights to be the default and take primacy, and little words are spend addressing their own or their opponents particular view of human rights.

A. Negative Rights

               Negative rights, as stated before, are those whose existence is persistent and bequeathed by no other person directly, but inherit in their being as a human.  These are encapsulated in the declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These rights are static; they are given by the absolute power of the universe, and are only threatened by other’s impediments.
In the negative sense, all rights are those that involve theft or interference.  The right of possession is always property, the violation always theft.  If you take somebody’s property without them giving it to you (either for trade or otherwise), that is theft.  If you kill someone, you are stealing their life.  If you rape (a word itself whose ancient meaning is synonymous with theft) someone, you are stealing their body.  When you imprison a man, enslave him, or coerce the use of his property you are interfering with his self-interested pursuits; you are depriving him of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The only question that arises within this framework is what do about conflicts of rights.  To quote Milton Friedman during the Free to Choose specials, “The right to swing your fist ends at my nose.” Man’s rights are limited only by the need to respect those of others.  His right to travel or speak is limited by another’s right to control his property, his right to armament only limited by his refusal to use such coercively or to kill, his right to property limited by another’s willingness to trade with him.  Inevitably, rights conflict, and the use of government, courts, and contracts is an attempt to balance and solve these conflicts as fairly as possible.  For instance, is a person’s right to the property of their body greater than an unborn child’s right to live?  Undoubtedly these are not easy questions to answer, and furthermore, seem subject to the whims of the society and its values, whether good or bad.
The relationship between property and interference is also a negative one.  No individual has a right to have an object, but everyone has a right to get an object; to do whatever they can to acquire that object, as long as those actions don’t in turn violate another’s rights.  As a practical application, let’s say somebody wished to have an expensive automobile, such as a Ferrari.  The first part of their property right, which is the right to have, exists only after they have purchased it.  The other half of their property right, which is the right to acquire, exist as they work and save the income from their economic production.

B. Positive Rights

One might be inclined to believe that the founders of the United States were primarily believers in negative rights, and for many instances they would be correct, especially concerning the Bill of Rights, but many parts of the constitution seem to invoke rights beyond merely the non-interference principle.  The mandate for education prior to the age of sixteen and the right to trial by jury seem to be a prelude to ideas that would take on great political importance in the first half of the twentieth century, and these are essentially concepts of Positive rights.
Positive rights involve the right to things, statuses, or other states of living that are not conditions of merely being alive, but are instead prerequisites, either necessities for life or necessities for quality of life.  An extensive list of these can be found in the Second Bill of Rights proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1944 “State of the Union” address.  In it he postulated that every individual had a right to a particular wage (a “living wage,” as opposed to a wage determined by the value their employer assigns to their labor), housing, medicine, education, and “Social Security” (which could mean either the right to retire or the right to a “Safety net”- an ability to not face destitution during unfortunate circumstances).
Essentially, the negative rights talked about above become positive rights when viewed through the lens of necessity.  The right to life also includes the right to necessities that are prerequisites for life: housing, medicine,  and food.  The right to property conversely extends first to those things which are prerequisites to life, and things that are beyond that may be tolerated, but not protected.  Whereas the negative right to life is a property right, the right to own and do as you wish with your own life, the positive right to life is just that- a right to be alive no matter what. The moral imperative therefore is to support these rights directly, through political and personal action, and defense of these rights occurs through action, not a lack thereof.
Conflicts of rights within a positive framework are rarely clashes of individual will or interests, but instead questions of degree.  A person’s right to a minimum quality of life is superior to a person’s right to property beyond such, or as an extension, his right to control the means and manner of his property trade.  Thus the wishes of few men must be subservient to the needs of the many, and in deciding conflicts, that which is most egalitarian is viewed as the most prudent solution.
Because these rights involve material things to different degrees, it becomes necessary to acknowledge that some things are not necessities of life and some things are.  People do not have rights to things insofar as they possess them, but are only entitled to them based on their need. This posits that while large degrees of wealth are not morally exclusive to human rights, they become morally tolerable only if they do not come at the expense of the rights of others, i.e. the things of their necessity. If we use the above example of the expensive Ferrari automobile, the man who desires it has neither the right to own it, as it is not a necessity, nor a right to acquire it, as he is only entitled to receive what is materially necessary for his existence.  If he does possess it, it is at best a privilege, not a right.

C. The Conflict Between Concepts

In the modern political environment, with its competing interests and visions, it is inevitable that the competing concepts of rights enter the arena of ideas, coloring with their respective tints both the moral and pragmatic discussions of the day.  To say that the these concepts fall squarely within one or the other of the modern American political parties is not correct; instead each mixes pieces of the two when building a viable constituency to win elections.
The American Democratic Party tends to view most economic discussions through a positive lens, concerning their social policies with the meeting of essential needs of all, and viewing the loss of income or wealth that certain people will suffer as a justifiable trade-off, as the piece taken is not essential to life or happiness.  The discussions therefore tend to focus, as stated above, on degrees rather than absolutes.  A man need not build a ten million dollar home when that money could be used to provide housing for many more individuals.  To quote the ever logical Spock in The Wrath of Khan, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”  The party that created Social Security, housing projects, and food stamps has gone on to argue for rights to medicine.
Conversely, the democratic party has stood behind causes and ideas that are primarily about negative rights, though sometimes they are given pragmatic explanations of degree.  The property right of abortion, the travel rights of immigrants, and more recently rights involving gay marriage (though the right to a government license could be argued as positive, the arguments presented by the party are mostly of a negative persuasion), have all been important to various parts of their constituency.  These particular interests, representing very different visions, are nevertheless able to coexist, however incoherent the partnership may seem.
The American Republican Party tends to view the majority of issues through a negative lens, refusing the moral justification of degree in most economic matters, much less willing to accept theft as a justifiable trade-off for any policy, however beneficial it may seem.   They support the negative right of armament as an extension of the right to life, viewing the defense of life as a right.  Pragmatists exist on both sides of the Isle, but the argument for rights to weaponry lies almost exclusively with the Republicans.
Strangely, negative rights are conspicuously absent from many parts of the republican platform, becoming the defender of negative rights only in select areas. Free speech does not extend to pornography, the right to self-property does not extend to putting drugs in one’s self, and freedom from interference in religion seems to only apply to those of the Christian faith.  The rights of life and liberty of foreigners are quickly sub-served during war to meet the necessity of national defense.  Again, there is an inconsistency of vision as a result of the building of coalitions, teaming freedom-loving gun enthusiasts up with bible reading teetotalers in order to garner a scant minority in elections.
At the end of this we may ask, who wins?  The answer is unequivocally those in favor of positive rights.  This is not a result of weakness on the part of those arguing for negative rights, or the particular strength of their opposition, but in the nature of politics. This is partly because politicians always want to be viewed as “doing something,” as opposed to doing nothing, but also because of how the compromise between these positions works. When compromising between two positions, one which wishes a total absence of the positive right and one which wishes total dedication to the positive right, the compromise always favors the positive.  For those who are championing causes of equality and necessity, a compromise (which results in a better serving of rights) is always better than nothing, while for those on the other side a compromise (which results in a violation of rights) is always worse than nothing.   Those who believe in absolute negative rights will always see them slowly stripped away.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Political Philosophy 1: Human Nature

               At the heart of every philosophy is a set of assumptions or conclusions on the nature of human beings and what guides their thoughts and behaviors.  It is perhaps too simplistic to dichotomize views on human nature, but as part of my own general view on humanity I understand that we understand our world through categorization, so on some level lines must be drawn, even on things which may not have a clear delineation of one position to the next.
               Typically, discussions of human nature revolve around whether we are “good” or “bad” by nature; that we are an inherently moral race is posited by both of these positions.  In one (what I would call a humanist position), humans are a beneficent race, perverted by unfortunate situations, and in the other (a position held by many of the inheritors of the Abrahamic tradition) humans are depraved, able to move beyond their sinful nature only through a powerful moral will or the assistance of God. However, when applying these to the task of organizing human action, either through government or markets, we find them lacking, especially since the proponents of each of these simplifications tend to be lumped into political organizations with the opposite application thereof.  Humanists, who believe in a fundamentally “good” man (you may, as I have, heard again and again of having “faith” in humanity), tend to be concentrated in socialist-leaning political parties (the American Democrat party, for instance) which use their political power to restrict man, disallowing him to be free and good.  Religious types, who believe in a fundamentally “bad” humanity tend to be concentrated in liberal-leaning political parties (the American Republican party), which allow man to be freely bad.
               A dichotomy that I find more appealing in this application is explored in Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, a thorough categorization and application of political philosophy into two “visions”: the constrained and the unconstrained.  In the constrained vision, also referred to by humanities scholars and political philosophers Bruce Thornton and Victor Davis Hanson as man’s “tragic” nature, humans nature is fundamentally flawed, but is also unchanging, so whatever progress man may make technologically or economically, he still remains with the same moral limitations.  The constrained man is not necessarily “good” or “bad,” but is essentially incapable of doing good for the human race directly.  He is too limited in his moral capabilities, too limited in his understanding of others, and too limited in his skill set to hope to organize or guide the entire race; he must instead be content to guide himself and care for the limited number of people in his life.  Likewise when looking at government, the constrained vision recognizes that no policy or government action, since these are essentially human actions, cannot be perfect or perfectible, and so the best any human can hope to create is a prudent trade-off.  That, despite whatever he may intend, every action has negative unintended consequences.  Those who believe in a tragic world view are skeptical of those in power, understanding that because of man’s limitations he is incapable of making perfect decisions and granting him power over others will only reveal these flaws on a larger scale. 
               The unconstrained vision does not concede that man’s nature is either flawed or fixed, but that man is capable of evolving morally and is in fact doing so, and also that at some point in the future man’s moral shortcomings will be either severely reduced or eliminated.  The unconstrained man, when he is fully rational and reasoning, is fundamentally “good,” and is also likewise capable of doing good directly, either as an individual or through the use of government.  The flaws perceived in men are also viewed as the result of a lack of reasoning, education, or rationality, and that so long as man has been educated so as to be fully rational, he will always choose what is morally good.  The unconstrained man is also moving forward, improving the state of his countrymen, or perhaps the whole race.  He is not content to look upon poverty, disease, and war as inevitable results of man’s flawed nature; instead, he seeks to correct these flaws, hoping for a time in the future of equality and peace.  So, when looking at government, the unconstrained man sees a tool for alleviating the flaws he sees, and each policy that takes a step toward fixing the world is viewed as righteous; unintended consequences are not relevant to a decision that is fundamentally the moral choice in his mind.  Inevitably some people will be hurt along the way, but those sacrifices are justified in context of what the collective as a whole will be able to achieve.  He rejects the age-old saying that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” knowing that good intentions and sincerity to the cause are indispensable prerequisites to forging effective policy.

               Given these two extremes, we see that those who view mankind as “bad” fit more into the category of the constrained vision, and likewise those who view humanity as “good” fit in the other. The American parities are not perfect expressions of either of these, but when creating a philosophical base for yourself, starting with the assumptions revolving around the nature of human existence is a great place to start.  Those who know me best know that I have a very tragic view of man, informed by my practical experience and observations as well as by my religious beliefs.  Perhaps in the future I will do some direct application of these to specific issues, showing how my vision of man leads me to my particular conclusions.  Until then, question for yourself the nature of our being.