Monday, November 24, 2008

Fundamental Rights

The classical liberal tradition, as I understand the term, gave a great deal of import to logical consistency. Logicians would be concerned with both internal consistency and applicability to the nature. The idea is to have a small number of consistent rules that are known and relatively well understood and followed.

This is pretty much the way science works. Scientists seek small number of physical laws that explain a great deal. In science, a person puts forth a hypothesis then checks to see how the hypothesis stacks up against nature and how well it fits within the current existing framework of scientific ideas.

Scientists tend to be conservative lot. They don't like changing the basic logical framework of science on a whim. For example, I think it would be better to say that objects are repelled from the heavens, but the cabal of scientists at the university is sticking with a gravitational theory that has objects attracted toward the earth.

In my opinion, moralists looking to define civil rights should do so by defining rights that are logically independent and consistent with other fundamental rights.

The surest way to destroy our basic civil liberties is to overload the system with claims of contradictory rights.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where people can start claiming any notion to be a right.

For example, in the segregated South there apparently were people who held the notion that they should be able to drink from water fountains that were only touched by people of their race.

The "right" to drink from racially segregated water fountains is in direct opposition to the right of others to participate in the public sphere of life. A century ago, a whole generation of politicians rose to influence on this belief that people had a right to exist within a sphere of racial purity.

In hindsight, rights to live in separate but equal spheres caused a great deal of division and really looks absurd. The notion of segregation was contradictory to the other rights enumerated by the founders, and needed to go.

The classical liberal ideal is anchored in the Artistotelean tradition. Classical liberals sought a small number of logically independent rights. The system falls apart when people start asserting rights (like segregation) which are contradictory to the other rights.

Dialectic View of Rights

Modern Liberalism, of course, starts with Kant, Hegel and Marx.

Kant (like many people before him) realized that there were intrinsic problems at the edges of reason. For example, there will always conflicts in defining the beginning and end of life. Likewise there are problems making assertions about free will. If there is no such thing as free will, then the whole debate about rights is absurd. There are also the standard problems with absolutes, continuity, the infinite and the reflexive paradox.

Do I have the right to oppress others? What about the right to own others as slaves?

Hegel was a master at using the foundation laid by Kant in proofs that "freedom is slavery, and slavery freedom."

Hegel and Marx presented a world view where the world spirit was eternally locked in thesis antithesis conflicts. The Dialectics has a history of master/slave reversals.

You can actually express these conflicts in terms of rights.

A group will rise to hegemony. In this hegemony, the people in power express a system of rights to maintain their power. Kings, emperors and feudal lords gave themselves rights over the serfs in their dominion.

Overtime, the disenfranchised would grow in number and influence, and demand a new set of rights to replace old system.

In the material dialectics, the thesis/antithesis conflict would resolve in a massive catharsis (e.g., the revolution). The new hegemony would then try to cement in its power with its new set of rights and the process would repeat as the newly disenfranchised would start forming a new system of rights.

Marx considered the rights enumerated in the Constitution as just an attempt by a horrible group of terrible people called the bourgeoisie to cement in their hegemony. There next revolution would demand a new set of rights that are in conflict with the petty rights held by the petty bourgeoisie.

In the dialectical view, rights are always in conflict and are constantly evolving in an unending spiral of social conflict and violence.

Classical v. Modern Liberalism

I think there is a profound difference between the way that classical liberals and modern liberals view rights. A classical liberal is looking for a small number of well defined non-contradictory rights that can be used as a foundation for a society that has an overall respect for individuals.

Such people are happy with the Bill of Rights, despite its many short fallings.

The classical liberal wants to defend individual rights, while the modern liberal wants to take the offensive and assert sexy new rights.

The new rights favored by the modern liberal tend to conflict with those established by previous generations.

I believe that the classical liberal approach has a better chance of creating a sustainable base for a free and prosperous society. The modern liberal approach is sexy, but chaos created by having overloading the system of civil rights with contradictions is leads to deep societal divisions, and conflict.

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