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Rights and Wrongs

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I have seen a fair share of talk about rights over the years. Phrases like student rights, consumer rights, human rights, civil rights, life rights and animal rights are often thrown around; much to the agitation of politicians, their institutions and people like me who find these notions absurd. Contrary to what those hysterical libertarians might tell you, the idea of individual rights actually has serious problems.

First and foremost, it is reductionist to view rights as a solution to the excesses of power because it neglects the role of context while over-emphasizing humans as free agents. Granted, many advocates understand the limited power of those they support, but just because you enshrine something like freedom of speech does not mean citizens will receive it. After all, freedom of speech, the press, assembly and public demonstration were all established in Article 125 of the soviet constitution. And with a large population and only handful of mass-media operations, access inequity between citizens is inevitable.

Second of all, wherever rights are outlined or promoted, their authors tend to frame them in black and white terms. For instance, the “right to life” is a nice sentiment, but biology has since revealed that life and humanness are not very clear-cut categories. Any attempt to quantify the genes that distinguish human from non-human is ultimately subject to a sorites paradox. And on top of that, we were never created, let alone equal.

Third, cementing rights in a constitution does very little to promote freedom and prevent the abuse of citizens by their government. In practice, if rights are taken seriously by a society, they do not balance power but merely hand it over to the courts. And these people, the judges, are not elected officials but professionals and former lawyers. Free to interpret the law as they like, there can be few checks or balances on their power, and as noted by Philip Zimbardo’s Lucifer Effect, the entrenchment of authority and control of one over another tends to invite misuse.

Finally, one must recognize that society changes and that it is illogical to assume the words of dead men are the best sources on which to build any argument and civilization. Where laws are entrenched in a constitution, legislative progress can easily be stunted by archaic ideas that were once thought brilliant, even when progress has majority support and sound logic behind it. That guns were once considered good is insufficient reason to continue them. Everything, including old systems and traditions should be open for debate and reform.

At the end of the day, all people really need is an effective system of government that divides power, makes leaders accountable, and engages with the interests of the public. Granted, some processes will need to be hammered down and defended, but beyond that any special rights are unnecessary. After all, the rule of law is far more adaptable to a complex and ever changing world, and the majority will always vote out a bad government.

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About Jonathan Scanlan

  • Jonathan Scanlan

    I don’t suppose one of the editors could slash out the words “the” and “of” from the first of paragraph 2 to read: “it is reductionist to view rights”?

    Might be a tad more coherent.

  • http://www.my-virtual-income.com Christopher Rose

    Fixed

  • Ali

    Hi Mr. Scanlan,

    I wanted to make you aware of Common Good, a non-profit, non-partisan legal reform coalition. Our founder, Philip Howard, wrote the book The Death of Common Sense, which is very much in agreement with your article “Rights and Wrongs” on blogcritics.org. We also noticed that you are getting an education degree and wanted to let you know that our work in schools focuses on informing the public of the burden of laws, rules, and regulations on educators and advocating for policies that empower principals and teachers to make common sense decisions. For more information on what we do, please visit Common Good.

    Best,
    Ali Kliegman

  • wildnfree

    Interesting article, just don’t forget that the majority can, and often will, elect a bad government.