You Don’t Have Any “Rights”

There’s been a lot of talk recently about rights.  Just who has rights?  What are they?  Why are some people being physically restrained from exercising their rights while others seem to have the right to rob us at every corner?   It doesn’t matter which side of the heated discussion you’re on; you probably see the other folks claiming rights they aren’t entitled to while simultaneously trampling all over yours.  This is a natural phenomenon when you deal in “them” and “us.”  However, let me let you in on a big secret. You’d better sit down because this is going to blow your bonnet off.  You have no rights.  None, zip, bupkis — and I’m not just playing with semantics here.  It’s an absolute, etched in stone, shout-it-from-the-rooftops fact.  And while we’re at it, you don’t have any privileges either; that’s just a word people use when they’re pissed off at dissidents.   As in: “Freedom of speech is not a right; it’s a privilege.”  Load-a-crap is what it is.  The only reason we can say what we like about Barack Obama (or anybody else for that matter) is that our society has a bunch of heavily armed young people who say we can.  But before you think you’ve landed in Hyperbole Heaven and gear up to take a run at the appalling “police state” tyranny we supposedly suffer under, that’s not what I’m talking about.  In fact, the quote/unquote police state everyone is so fond of invoking is one of the institutions that allows us to practice those things we mistakenly call rights.

Here’s the truth; like it or not.  Those things we call rights are nothing more than an ad hoc collection of laws that haven’t even been agreed on yet.  They are not inalienable, and they are certainly not universal.  How do I know this?  It’s quite simple.  In our society, two hundred years ago, I had the “right” to wander down to the local slave market and buy another human being to help me do the dishes.  I owned that person: they were my property.  Not only that but a hundred years ago, not one female in North America had the “right” to vote.  Actually, in my country, it wasn’t until 1929 that women were even considered “persons” under the law.  Historically speaking, there are tons of examples just exactly like this — temporary habits mistaken for universal rights and privileges.  Yes, those were “a relic of days more barbarous than ours”* but so is every moment of history before this morning.  Nobody is going to convince me that, in a mere 5,000 years or so of written history, we have reached the pinnacle of human achievement and awareness.  Nor, that in 2011, we finally understand the human condition so thoroughly that we can now pronounce what our rights should and always will be.  That’s just 21st century arrogance.  Honestly, if this is the peak, we are in trouble!  So all those rights everybody keeps yipping about are simply temporary accommodations that may (or may not) change, depending on the circumstances.

These days, we’re spending so much time demanding our nonexistent rights that we’re forgetting how we got them in the first place.  Our society is based on a very few generally accepted principles, guaranteed by the generosity of a whole lot of strangers.  For example, we, as a group, believe you, as an individual, have the “right” to worship your neighbour’s cat if you so choose.  We are willing to make contributions (in fact or in kind) not to you directly, but to the group as a whole in support of that “right.”  Also, we are willing — on occasion — to forego some of our own freedoms to ensure you have that “right.”  This is because it doesn’t belong to you; it belongs to all of us.

However, this guaranteeing generosity is not an infinite commodity, nor is it eternal.  It breaks down quite easily and with surprising regularity.  In times of crisis, it disappears entirely.  And as we have seen throughout history, once it’s gone, it’s very difficult to get back.  Depending on the kindness of strangers only
works as long as the strangers are kind: just ask Blanche Dubois.  Therefore, the only way we can maintain a continuity of liberty to think, speak and act as we please is to maintain the society which nurtures that liberty.

Without the institutions to back them up, our much heralded rights are just an illusion.  Until we understand that, all we’re doing is jacking our jaw or playing
around discussing how many rights can dance on the head of a pin.

*British Privy Council October 18th, 1929

Individual Rights and Responsibilities

Anarchy has a way of convincing people that the discussion about individual rights and responsibilities isn’t over yet.  Kick in a store window or set a cop car on fire, and the first thing you know, academics are demanding room on the head of a pin to debate individual rights in a free society — with a side order of responsibilities.  Common knowledge says that everybody has rights — although they seem to be elastic in times of crisis.  We also agree that individual citizens have responsibilities to their greater society, but, oddly enough, nobody — right, left and centre — is willing (or able) to specify what they are.  However, like medieval priests, the learned people of our time keep jawing away as if there’s some kind of cosmic scale that can be balanced if we just get the correct combination.  Unfortunately, there is no cosmic scale where rights and responsibilities have equal measure.  Besides, the entire discussion is based on a fallacy.

Our modern concept of individual rights and freedoms comes from a group of gentleman farmers who had acres of slaves to do the actual agricultural work.  This gave them the cash and the leisure to read the ancient Greeks, John Locke and some trendy French philosophers.  They decided that men (women would have to wait) “were endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”  This idea had been around for a while, but for the first time, instead of just talking about it, these guys took musket in hand and started shooting.  When the smoke cleared, a bunch of North Americans were enjoying “life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  The idea caught on, and the rest is recent history.

However, if we were to study these Virginians a little bit more diligently, we would discover what they already knew.  Human society is not based on individual rights.  It’s based on individual responsibilities.  They knew that; we’re the ones making the mistake.  Interestingly enough, one of the first crises of the new American government was a rebellion by western farmers who didn’t want to pay the excise tax on whiskey.  It was put down by force.  (Western alienation has been with us ever since.)  My point, of course, is America’s Founding Fathers understood that it’s the individual citizen’s responsibility to pay taxes — not his individual right to refuse — that is the cornerstone of polite society.

Way back in caveman days, when Grog and his family decided to share the warmth of their cave with other wandering Cro-Magnons the first grunting discussion was not about who got to sit by the fire.  It was who’s going to gather the wood.  Our low-brow ancestors came together in groups because all of us are smarter, stronger and better fed than one of us.  Society prospered because there’s safety in numbers.  More hunters, more mastodon — for everybody.  Besides, in those days, there was no such thing as a free lunch.  You had the right to live high on the mastodon if you went out and killed it — and dragged it home — for everybody.  The responsibility of feeding the group was there long before the right to eat.  As society progressed, these responsibilities were set down as commonly accepted tradition — as in: “We are the children of Grog, and we do things this way.  If you don’t like it, find another cave.”  It was a good arrangement.  Groups that maintained their common purpose not only survived but thrived.

Fast forward a bunch of evolutionary millennia.  Even though societies were centuries out of the cave their primo responsibility was still to the integrity of the group.  Only a strong group could guarantee an individuals’ right to eat, work and dream of better things.  Citizens who contributed to their society were protected by the group, and the more they contributed, the stronger the group became.  Plus the group protected the individual rights of everybody.  Traditions became laws which guys like Hammurabi wrote down, so everybody was clear that individuals had the responsibility to play nice with the neighbours, not the right to do as they pleased or disrupt the health, welfare or tranquillity of the group.  It’s what membership in the group meant.

Essentially, strong societies evolved because individuals dedicated themselves to the common purpose of preserving, protecting and enhancing everybody’s individual lives.  They understood the needs of the many outweigh Amtoph the drunkard’s right to play the lyre, at concert pitch, in the middle of the night.  They protected common folk from gangs of thieves running around the country, stealing chickens.  And they made sure those who couldn’t defend themselves were given a modicum of security to sleep easy in their beds.  The streets were kept reasonably safe from the most despicable among us, and for the next several centuries, strong societies flourished.  They went beyond hand to mouth subsistence to pursue the arts, science, medicine and technology — with tons of benefits — for all.

Fast forward again, to the middle of the 20th century.  Our society became so successful that the lessons of history from Grog the caveman to Jefferson and Madison became twisted.   Many amateur philosophers came to the unusual conclusion that individual rights supersede the needs of the rest of us.  They decided that, rather than keeping our collective society protected from those individuals who, for one reason or another, aren’t interested in the common good, we needed to use our considerable resources to protect the individual from our collective society.  Society itself became the bogeyman.  It’s a preposterous idea.  Unfortunately, it’s now taken hold so thoroughly that, while commentators still vaguely mention that citizens have responsibilities, no one seems to have a clue what they are.  Prevailing wisdom feels that, if we increase our responsibility, we naturally lose some of our rights, and vice versa: that increasing our rights diminishes our responsibility.  This is the way the discussion goes these days; whereas society’s natural path, which has worked ever since Grog got feeling hospitable one cold night, is individual rights can only increase when individuals take responsibility for the common good.

Meanwhile we, as citizens, keep missing the point and demanding our rights, and they’re dissolving all around us like sugar in the rain.