Individualism: the Reappearing Ideal, part 5: Rights

From the equality of rights springs identity of our highest interests; you cannot subvert your neighbor’s rights without striking a dangerous blow at your own.” – Carl Schurz

Rights, human

Human rights are only rights if they cannot be taken away. Some people have no rights. They live in societies where elites have summoned collectivism to relieve these poor people of the only thing they should have been born with. And sometimes governments will simply take away rights and become more popular as a result. The internment of Japanese Americans and Canadians during World War Two is a prime example. The Japanese are the enemy, these people are Japanese, so just in case, we will lock them up. Though they were citizens, they lost their rights to racism.

The individualist society would not have this problem. There would be an equality of rights, because no groups, no leaders would deserve more or less rights. There would be no justification for a Patriot Act or a Federal Communications Commission, or the Canadian Human Rights Commissions boondoggle, a group whose job seems to be to lock people up who hurt minorities’ feelings. And the only reason that not everyone disagrees with taking others’ rights away is they see it as good for the collective. It is not. As Martin Luther King, Jr, said, an attack on justice anywhere is an attack on justice everywhere. If one person’s rights are in jeopardy, yours could be next.

Rights, collective

Rights, in case I forgot to mention, are the province of individuals. During the 2009 war in Gaza (and for the past half century) one often heard that “Israel has the right to defend itself,” as if it were a beehive. But Israel is not a beehive, nor is it a person. It is a jagged piece of beachfront property with a lot of angry people in it. Does Los Angeles have the right to defend itself? I rest my case. (Indeed, the apologists of the Zionist cause bring much of the criticism they receive on themselves through their pig headed collectivist actions and rhetoric. That said, in another case of treating members of a group all the same, during the same war in Gaza, there was an outbreak of anti semitism in Europe. Of what the small Jewish minority in Europe had to do with the war in Gaza I am not aware.)

The reason we can talk of “Israel” at all is that we have invented entities that governments or militias or what have you are protecting at the expense of individual rights. Israel is a nation state; it has an official religion and a culture and a territory. All of those things, nation state, religion, culture and territory have their own rights, rights that will be protected before any human being’s rights are. It comes out in just about every country, every day. Politicians try to appeal endlessly to “national interest”, which is just as bad as appealing to self interest. It accustoms people to ask, what is in it for me? for every policy. What of policies that benefit all humans? asks the individualist.

But of course collectivists will not be satisfied with this argument. All right, let’s say that you believe your culture is at risk from another, more imposing culture. Here is the thing about cultures. If they are worth doing, they will be done. If others find value in adopting cultural practices, they will. If they find good reasons to keep their old ones, they will. Culture is collective action by individual choice. An individual should never be forced to continue traditions, or even shamed into doing so by the collectivists around them. In sum, groups do not need rights because if anyone wants to join, they will join. If people want to leave, they should have that choice. Rights are there to protect us not just from other people but from our group.

Collectivists delude themselves when they say that some entity like society, a nation, a culture or a religion should have rights, and especially so when they say those rights trump individual rights. Governments rule according to what is right for society. Is society not made up of people? Different people? Some people want A, others want B; some people want +C and others want –C, which contradicts +C. There is no way leaders could do what everyone in a given group wants, so politicians say they do everything “society” wants instead. Yes, we are trampling all over your rights but we have to protect society!

It similar thinking that has brought us the idea that society is to blame for someone’s crime. It was not Jones that killed Smith, even though Jones pulled the trigger, but society. Since society is made up of people, and we could not possibly blame Jones, it follows that Smith’s death was the fault of everyone EXCEPT Jones.

Crimes, collective

Whatever happened to individual responsibility? Because of our penchant toward collectivism, we tend to make laws that take responsibility away from the actual perpetrators of acts. Hate speech, for instance, should not be a crime. One could easily argue it is immoral, just like some argue that homosexuality is immoral, but immoral and illegal should be separate. If I stand on the corner (or on my own blog) shouting that we should behead Ann Coulter, most people would shout encouragement but very few would actually act on it. Most people can reason that, just because I am angry about something, it does not mean they should form a lynch mob.

But let us pretend that they did. A mob runs to Ann Coulter’s house and cuts her head off. Millions cheer. The sentencing judge’s questioning should not be “who riled them up?” but “who wielded the axe?” There is only one killer here. Blaming the rabble rouser diverts responsibility away from the rational individual. This is the problem with collectivising the crowd as “the public”, or some other amorphous entity and considering that it is just the puppet of a criminal.

But what about the leaders? Surely, many people with titles like “president”, “general”, “pope” and “ayatollah” are the ones providing collective ideologies with killer motives. There is a big difference between an article in Newsweek saying that Ann Coulter should die and a political or religious leader issuing text books and forcing everyone to read, from a young age, who our enemies are and why we would kill them if they made a foot wrong against us. Our history books shape our culture. The article in Newsweek gives you the chance to think for yourself, and even encourages it: it must appeal to you to make you act. The text books assault you before you have developed the capacity for logic, when you are truly defenseless against unreason.

Of course there should still be prisons: if you violate the rights of an individual, you go to jail. We already have a reasonably individualist justice system. And yet, there are still crimes for offending entire groups of people. If you say something bad about a religion, or the government in some places, you go to jail. Only an insecure group, one that knows it is on shaky ground, would lock up someone who insulted it. My suggestion is, if you are the representative of a group like the government and someone insults you personally, call them out. Be a man: have a fistfight, work it out, and perhaps you will show your offender your point of view.

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Posted in Philosophy. Tags: . 1 Comment »

One Response to “Individualism: the Reappearing Ideal, part 5: Rights”

  1. Amnesty is good, but rights would be better « The Menso Guide to War, Conflict and World Issues Says:

    […] As I wrote in an earlier post, individual rights are essential to democracy and equality. One of the most important rights, or perhaps the only important right, is the right to property (assuming that one’s body is one’s property). At the moment, the government is spending more and more to protect oil supplies and the people of the Niger Delta are not much happier than before. If they spent that money on cleaning up Nigeria’s justice and law enforcement systems (not an easy task, of course), they could be laying the foundation for giving the indigenous people the rights to their land and its resources. […]


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