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Hobbes and Locke Revisited: The Foundations of the Modern Liberal State, Part VII

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Since right(s) are a political concept through-and-through, so is freedom (although liberty is an apter term, far better suited for politically-laden contexts and discourse). Indeed, underlying any meaningful talk of rights, there has to be at least the possibility of freedom, of making good on our rights, of actualizing them, if not immediately then soon thereafter. In the absence of freedom, all talk of rights is nothing but an empty gesture. One is tempted to say that it is our freedom, therefore, which is the primordial kind of right, the prototype of all rights, the first premise, as it were, a precondition, a right without which no other kind of right could possibly get off the ground.

Freedom to or freedom from? Corresponding to this distinction, we see a parallel development in all our discourses about rights: a right to do as one pleases (barring the usual restrictions concerning the impinging on another fellow’s rights), and a right to protect ourselves from all forms of coercion. The former is the trademark of a libertarian; the latter, of a true patriot. And while the former appears to be a positive thing, insofar as it purports to be an affirmation of individual freedom, it is not because it’s essentially acontextual, devoid of any connection to responsibility, a right in name only,

It is to the latter, therefore, that we must turn, an assertion of a right to resist all manner of coercive systems. But here we find that even at its finest, the concept of rights is, at bottom, a defensive kind of concept; reactive rather than pro-active, an antidote, the best line of defense we can muster. And it’s made viable, let alone possible, only by the oppressive system in place; none but.

Not to minimize of course all the battles humanity has won in the name of rights, and the victories have indeed been formidable, we shouldn’t nonetheless espouse the cause of human rights and ride under that banner as though the be all and end all. Or if we do, let it be perfectly clear that while we do, oppression remains. Eliminate oppression, I say, and you have as good as obliterated the concept of rights! You’ve rendered it obsolete.

I’m not certain now whether this kind of analysis is equally applicable to our concept of freedom. Freedom “to” we can readily discard so long as it remains unconnected to any sense of responsibility, an empty notion at that. But what about freedom “from?” Aren’t we likewise laboring here under an oppressive system of sorts in order for that concept to have any function at all? It would appear that we do, and that freedom and rights are both subject to the same internal logic and conceptual structure.

But these are but preliminary remarks laying the groundwork for further exploration of the key concepts. Meanwhile, suffice it to say that an innocuous little concept like ownership, presumably restricted to our economic activity, brings with it a whole array of politically-laden concepts such as obligation (to the sovereign), rights, and freedom.

It is the singular achievement of the liberal theory to have successfully merged both the political and the economic aspects of being into one indistinguishable whole.

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • Say hello to your mom? How long is she going to stay with you? And does John keep you company as well?

  • All concepts of liberal political philosophy are sugarcoated; they’re designed to make us feel good and make us believe that we’re making progress; whereas in effect they mask the mechanisms of power. “Rights” is one such concepts. If it weren’t for oppression, we wouldn’t need rights.

    What rights do I have as I relate to my friends, neighbors or acquaintances? We just relate, that’s all.

  • Eliminate oppression, I say, and you have as good as obliterated the concept of rights! You’ve rendered it obsolete.

    I like the way you put that. That seems right to me.

  • Sure, Dr. Maresca. Individual rights would get nowhere without strong community support and the rights in question having come “of age.” But surely, we must also agree that the very meaning and significance of individual rights derive from tyrannical institutions which oppress and discriminate against segments of the society.

  • Rights are affirmed by communal norms. If the community at large has a sense of right and wrong, then rights will be protected because people will rise up against a tyranny.