Wednesday, May 28, 2008

'liberty', 'freedom', 'rights'

One enters this territory at one's peril; whatever you say will be used against you. Angels rush in; fools shrug: why bother?

To begin, you can't understand the first two without being clear about the third. What is a right? A right is an enforcible claim to a power: the power to do or say certain kinds of things without interference. Such a power is never acquired without a struggle of some kind,for the obvious reason that a power or a right gained by one party is a power or a right lost by another. Every right we possess had to be fought for, sometimes literally.

Without rights, one has no power and no freedom. Without power, one cannot enforce one's claims to a right; a right that cannot be backed up by power is meaningless. It is equally meaningless if the struggle for the power or the freedom represented by a right never ends: rights can only exist in a stable political and legal framework. Therefore as Hobbes demonstrated and Rousseau conveniently forgot, there can be no rights in a state of nature; or to say the same thing in a more familiar way, there is no such thing as a natural or human right outside or independent of, or precedent to, history. The concept of human rights, like that of the social contract is a fiction. Fictions have their uses, however; they are not necessarily meaningless.

What I've just set forth could be called an operational definition of 'freedom' and 'rights.' What about 'liberty'? It is interesting that the uses of this term don't always correspond to the uses and meanings of 'freedom'. We know what the opposite of 'freedom' is: slavery. The opposite of liberty isn't quite so tangible and obvious as slavery: those who live under tyrannical or despotic regimes--which may be most of the people on this planet--are subject to the demands of arbitrary and capricious rulers but are not slaves; or not exactly (if such a determination can be made with exactitude); what these multitudes long for but have no experience of is the rule of law. Liberty is life under the rule of law.

'Liberty' for example is related to words like 'liberal' and 'libertarian' that could not have been

derived from the words 'free' or 'freedom.' A free spirit is not necessarily a liberal one, nor is a liberal necessarily free. 'Liberty' is an abstraction: freedom from certain restrictions. A free man or woman is free--or at liberty-- to go or do or be whatever he or she pleases within certain limits; there is no such thing as an unlimited or absolute right. A free person is a person who has acquired certain rights. A right is a claim to be able to act in a certain kind of way, in certain situations, without interference from others. There are no natural, or human rights; every right that we take for granted today had to be fought for--sometimes literally--including those "inalienable rights" that Jefferson refers to. Rights are soaked with blood; liberty does not come cheap; keeping it can be a bloody business as well. And what is this abstraction, liberty, all about? Or rather what does it mean? Liberty is a kind of freedom: freedom from arbitrary or capricious government, i.e. life under the rule of law.

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