Irish Liberty Forum

The Proper Use of “Rights” Concepts

with 2 comments

A psychologist and criminologist has published a book wherein he explores the prohibition of drugs from a very critical perspective. Of great interest was his proposal for how change could actually be brought about.

“What is required to achieve a tipping point, a revolution in thinking, is a bold, inspirational idea to which people can subscribe as a matter of self-evident principle.

“Only the concept of a human right to use drugs can fulfil this role of providing a meaningful, inspiring and unifying idea which can guide the transition to a fully non-prohibitionist system.”

How fascinating. We use the concept of a “human right” to engage people’s moral passions, to inspire them to join the movement and to help them cut through complex arguments which often leave out the bigger picture.

My interest in philosophy does not prevent me from using this post to make a conjecture on this strategic point, not just from the anti-prohibition stance of this particular academic but from the anti-state perspective of a radical libertarian. Firstly, it remains true that many libertarians do not believe in the existence of an absolute morality: Ludwig von Mises was utilitarian, David D. Friedman arrives at anarcho-capitalism using newer economic techniques, and the debate rages on as to in what senses, if any, these arguments are sufficient.

But leaving aside this question for a moment, is it conceivable that libertarianism (or indeed any other political philosophy) could actually ever become popular without resting itself on some type of moral foundation?

Broadly speaking, the statist Left has never been shy about promoting itself on moral grounds. “Free” state services are often defended on the basis that people have a “right” to the service in question. It has recently become common for people to talk about governments taking “rights-based” approaches to the provision of public services. The terms “social justice” and “equity”, so often used in a left-wing context, themselves are clearly meant to concern one’s moral sympathies.

In contrast, libertarianism is frequently equated with the non-aggression axiom. Ron Paul focussed mostly instead on the US Constitution, which acted for him as the shorthand of what he advocated. For his supporters, upholding the Constitution “fulfilled the role of providing a meaningful, inspiring and unifying idea”. But for libertarians in general, non-aggressionism is our “bold, inspirational idea”. It provides a simple tool by which we can measure any political proposition.

Going further back in time for another example, the idea of the divine right of kings long provided legitimacy for monarchs. It summed up the view that the authority of ultimate decision-making and absolute power ought to reside in the head of a single family and in their extended relations.

A complication arises in the libertarian example because not everyone thinks that the non-aggression axiom actually exists as a moral imperative. Some of us think that it is merely an approximation of what we believe, a rule we created to summarise how we feel that society should be organised. It is the result of merely connecting our desire for human satisfaction with our conclusions from nonmoral analysis, and does not itself influence our desire for human satisfaction or our analysis of nonmoral topics. The most it can do is help to motivate those actions we take to bring about a more libertarian future.

On the other hand, even for those whose analyis is mostly based in theories of rights, the non-aggression axiom is not more than the shortest possible summary of their view. There is a substantive body of thought backing it up, with non-aggressionism being only the statement of their most important theorem.

At this point I can fully state the problem I’m concerned with here. Does a political position require some easily-digested hook in order to become popular? Or can it become popular as a purely intellectual movement which gradually influences the climate of ideas?

With reference to my examples above, could Marxism spread without the belief by non-experts in normative shorthand rules such as that material equality is a moral necessity? Would Ron Paul have succeeded without being able to summarise his views for the masses by advocating constitutionalism? And could libertarianism become more popular without promoting the non-aggression axiom as the moral ideal?

I suspect that political movements do need rallying cries to succeed, for a straightforward reason based on the division of labour. Clearly the vast bulk of any given population is not going to consist of specialists in politics, economics, history or law, and so their political beliefs are necessarily going to be based on summaries of expert opinion. This being the case, with limited means of communication open to the political activist, simple moral hooks appear most likely to succeed. In a 30-second soundbyte, it makes more sense for the libertarian activist to declare the non-aggression axiom than to explain half of a definition from his framework.

Furthermore, motivating people to actually listen to and support your position is not such an easy task. For this reason, those “hooks” which carry with them clear and urgent moral prescriptions seem most likely to succeed.

As is clear, I am assuming that a large majority of the people will not be experts in the relevant fields. If this is true, then it appears likely that the most popular political philosophy will not be the one most likely to serve the achievement of what most people would otherwise consider to be appropriate objectives. They simply do not have the time to become experts in the fields which would allow them to answer the question satisfactorily, and the summaries handed down to them from experts will necessarily be imperfect and corrupted by the particular political and cultural environment they are in. We note that it is unrealistic for an enterprising expert to expect that the general population should have a similar perspective as he does, and equally futile for him to be disappointed in them for not doing so.

But what I feel is the significant conclusion of my article is that we should be cautious when using shorthand rules such as “human rights”, “individual rights” or the non-aggression axiom as the core position which we explain to those not yet introduced to these ideas. While it may help to provide a flavour of libertarianism for them, and this can certainly be a useful exercise, we should diligently point out that the justifications for our positions are far more substantial than the rule which is the end product of our analysis. This holds true just as much for utilitarians as for moralists. Both have credible bodies of work to defend, work which should not be reduced down to a slogan.

The danger is that we would be seen to advertise simple hooks and catchphrases just as statists of left and right do. Non-aggressionism would become just another party line. The point is that so long as we are not actually engaged in statist political campaigning, we have no need for the modes of partisan support which mainstream political activists receive. For the sake of our intellectual integrity, we would do well to avoid that kind of support completely.

Therefore we should use concepts of rights in situations where only the briefest of explanations is possible, and where we insist that we are not selling merely another outlet for political partisanship and petty conflict. We are offering ideas which we have thought about most seriously, are based on substantial analysis, and which we feel genuinely provide solutions to major social problems.

More generally, this should teach us that there are very real problems when it comes to advocating liberty to a wide public audience. Those of us who wish to remain apolitical still face the problem of competing with rivals who are explicitly and proudly political, and who are unafraid to use any kind of tactic to broaden their support base. Stooping to their intellectual level does a disservice to the quality of libertarian scholarship, yet not doing so may risk being completely left out of public consideration. Given the choice, I would much sooner choose the latter. But where it seems possible to spread the message widely without compromise, I will do so.

(Also published on Polycentric Order)


Written by Graham

June 21, 2008 at 5:47 pm

2 Responses

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  1. It is truely sad how the left in particular have annexed nearly every possible ‘catchphrase’ available to the concerned citizen. You make a great point Graham that an ideology built on a veneer of ‘social justice’ without real depth of understanding has managed to capture the minds of humanity for over a century. As a political organisation, the left has mastered the art of the ‘school house debate’, capable of winning short arguments with pleas for compassion and scorning the free-marketeer with his obsession with facts and details.

    Rothbard’s masterpiece ‘Why be a Libertarian’ deals in detail with the various characters from the Abolitionist movement. This was a movement built on libertarian principles that did in fact succeed. What was so powerful about this movement? Slavery had existed since the dawn of time! What worked? This change was obviously not brought about by benevolent government but by political activism which included many famous anarchists. If there is any movement an Anarchist Movement should model itself on it is the Abolitionist Movement.

    Abolitionism demanded the immediate emancipation of the SLAVES. But how different is the slave to his master than the citizen to his government? At least the slave owner had economic self-interest in keeping his slaves healthy, something the government health service lacks (if anything it wants you to stay sick and dependent)! Graham, as you advance a modern day Anarchist defense of human rights it was precisely this appeal to human rights that won the abolitionist movement its instantaneous victory over the ancient custom of slavery. Perhaps most importantly of all though, it has also given us the terminology needed to undermine the State. For the simple sound bites needed in popular libertarian message are all inculded in the Abolitionist Movement:
    “End Slavery”
    or perhaps more precisely,
    “End Government Slavery”
    This is easily digestible for the common man and tying this message with ‘Choice is a Human Right’ makes a potent combination. If the left champion the unequal and the poor, we shall champion the slave.

    At first this message may appear rather extreme, but it is no more extreme than the idea that all slaves be set free from their masters over-night! As Rothbard said brilliantly (if you let me quote at length),

    “In framing principle, it is of the utmost importance not to mix in strategic estimates with the forging of desired goals. First, goals must be formulated, which, in this case, would be the instant abolition of slavery or whatever other statist oppression we are considering. And we must first frame these goals without considering the probability of attaining them. The libertarian goals are “realistic” in the sense that they could be achieved if enough people agreed on their desirability, and that, if achieved, they would bring about a far better world. The “realism” of the goal can only be challenged by a critique of the goal itself, not in the problem of how to attain it. Then, after we have decided on the goal, we face the entirely separate strategic question of how to attain that goal as rapidly as possible, how to build a movement to attain it, etc.”
    Thus, William Lloyd Garrison was not being “unrealistic” when, in the 1830s, he raised the glorious standard of immediate emancipation of the slaves. His goal was the proper one, and his strategic realism came in the fact that he did not expect his goal to be quickly reached. Or, as Garrison himself distinguished:
    Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may, it will, alas! be gradual abolition in the end. We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be, we shall always contend.
    Actually, in the realm of the strategic, raising the banner of pure and radical principle is generally the fastest way of arriving at radical goals. For if the pure goal is never brought to the fore, there will never be any momentum developed for driving toward it. Slavery would never have been abolished at all if the abolitionists had not raised the hue and cry thirty years earlier; and, as things came to pass, the abolition was at virtually a single blow rather than gradual or compensated.[4]

    Thus, when in the early 19th century, the great abolitionist movement arose, voices of moderation promptly appeared counseling that it would only be fair to abolish slavery if the slave masters were financially compensated for their loss. In short, after centuries of oppression and exploitation, the slave masters were supposed to be further rewarded by a handsome sum mulcted by force from the mass of innocent taxpayers! The most apt comment on this proposal was made by the English philosophical radical Benjamin Pearson, who remarked that “he had thought it was the slaves who should have been compensated”; clearly, such compensation could only justly have come from the slaveholders themselves.[2]
    The genuine libertarian, then, is, in all senses of the word, an “abolitionist”; he would, if he could, abolish instantaneously all invasions of liberty, whether it be, in the original coining of the term, slavery, or whether it be the manifold other instances of State oppression. He would, in the words of another libertarian in a similar connection, “blister my thumb pushing that button!””


    June 22, 2008 at 11:41 am

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