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Two approaches

February 20, 2018


It occurs to me that, broadly speaking, there are two approaches to liberty. These two approaches highlight the differences between privileges and rights.

The first approach is this. Those in power, usually the state, grant various privileges to those of whom they approve. Typically, it works out something like this:

  • the state provides a set of criteria one must meet in order to be allowed to exercise a privilege
  • a citizen provides to the state documentation that he/she does, indeed, meet those criteria
  • depending on the privilege under consideration and the nature of the governing authority, permission to exercise that privilege may or may not be granted

Note that the nature of this approach does not change simply because of what the state calls the privilege. Calling it a “right” may sound better, but this is irrelevant to the approach (lipstick on a pig and all that). Also note that those in power reserve to themselves and their successors the power to later rescind the privilege, even if nothing about the citizen and his/her circumstances have changed.

The second approach is different. In this case we are not concerned with privileges. All states grant those, but our focus is on something else. We are concerned with rights that are rights, indeed, rather than privileges with a more convenient name (as per the previous paragraph, it is not the name which makes it different, but the approach).

It works like this.

  • before the state may limit or prohibit a person’s right to do, act or possess, it must demonstrate why it should be allowed to do so
  • the state must provide the documentation/evidence supporting its assertion
  • absent such evidence, the person is at liberty to do the thing in question, whatever that thing might be

The first approach says “you may not do this, unless…” The second says “anyone may do this, unless…” The first approach places the burden of proof on the individual. The second places that burden on the state. The first approach treats liberty as a thing that proceeds from the largesse of the state. The second recognizes that liberty proceeds from ones personhood. The first approach is far older, and far more common in the world. The second approach is as radical now as it has ever been. A brief excerpt from John Kennedy’s Inaugural Address comes to mind.

“The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe–the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”*

When one views liberty as proceeding from the hand of man, it becomes very easy to suggest it should be subject to the calculus or either need or social utility. Such a view in incompatible, I submit, when one understands liberty is based simply on the fact that one is a human.

*NOTE: Whether you have any positive regard for JFK or not, it was a hell of a speech. I wish I had written it.




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