“Poor?” said Cordelia, bewildered. “No electricity? How can it be on the comm network?”
“It’s not, of course,” answered Vorkosigan.
“Then how can anybody get their schooling?”
Cordelia stared. “I don’t understand. How do they get their jobs?”
“A few escape to the Service. The rest prey on each other, mostly.” Vorkosigan regarded her face uneasily. “Have you no poverty on Beta Colony?”
“Poverty? Well, some people have more money than others, of course, but . . . no comconsoles?”
Vorkosigan was diverted from his interrogation. “Is not owning a comconsole the lowest standard of living you can imagine?” he said in wonder.
“It’s the first article in the constitution. ‘Access to information shall not be abridged.’ “
— From Cordelia’s Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold
I wrote a blog recently about the misuse of the word “equality” on a billboard I saw downtown. Today I want to discuss the use and abuse of another term: rights.
The lead quote on this blog comes from a book in the Vorkosigan saga by Bujold. Cordelia comes from a very advanced planet, Beta Colony, and has wound up with Vorkosigan on Barrayar, a planet that had gotten cut off from the rest of the galaxy and technologically digressed until being forcefully reacquainted about a century before. As such, her idea of rights vs. Vorkosigan’s are drastically different.
I think her view of rights is like many people’s today. She cannot imagine someone without access to comconsoles — what we might term the internet. People have a right to communication, people have a right to healthcare, people have a right to good housing, people have a right to …. the list can go on and on.
The one thing about all these rights, is that to ensure them, someone has to be able to provide them. They are taxing. Literally. They require taxes. They are also limiting. They take resources from one person and provide them to another. By force, or the threat thereof.
Contrast this to the American Declaration of Independence (as opposed to the Betan Constitution in the quote above).
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This is John Locke’s life, liberty and property, with property replaced with “pursuit of happiness,” but the idea and sentiment is the same.
To guarantee someone’s life, liberty and property merely requires restraint. To leave them alone. Note the pursuit of happiness requires the same thing. In these rights the action comes from the individual who has them. I have my life, my liberty, and I must use it to pursue my own happiness. No one is guaranteed happiness, just the right to seek it.
The center of action is different with these two types of rights. The first set the individual is acted upon. The second the individual takes his own actions.
The first type of rights constrains freedom. The second type of rights increases freedom. The first exchanges freedom, slowly, for wealth and security.
The first type of rights is only possible in a wealthy society, wealthy enough to give all these goods, all these rights. The irony is, this wealth comes from individuals, who create it. But as more are given, fewer create, until there is nothing left to give, and all are left in poverty — all, that is, except those at the top who managed and arranged the taking and giving in the first place.
For the first type of rights, while claiming egalitarianism, is also the highest form of elitism. For the people granting the rights know what and how much of what people have the right to — a one-size-fits-all approach — which means it fits no one.
In contrast, rights that leave the action to the individual, ensure a perpetual freedom of action, to choose, to live, to create. To choose one’s own wealth or poverty, to choose one’s own generosity or stinginess. To choose one’s own companions and associations.
In his work Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville was amazed by two main things: the strength of our faith, and our ability to combine in voluntary associations to achieve great social goals. For way too long we have allowed the force of government to do what the free association of free men, of free people’s of faith, should be doing in our society. We have traded our freedoms for the bestowed “rights” of government — rights granted and given by force.
Our culture is confused here as it is with the term equality. The word rights is used with different meanings, and we blindly follow, not realizing the different road we are being taken upon than the one we expected. It takes careful linguistics, careful conversations and dialogues to help people understand the difference, to separate the definitions out. But we must not allow the language to be so used and abused. If we want our freedom, if we want our liberties, if we want our unalienable rights respected and maintained, we must persevere, one conversation, one chat, one blog, one news story at a time.