Monday, June 13, 2005

Rights and the State

For reasons detailed here, I deny that rights are innate to humans. Rights may arise from urges that are innate to humans, but a person possesses rights only to the extent that those rights are enforced or enforceable through self-defense, common consent, or state power.

Moreover, not all rights comport with liberty, which is the right to be left alone in return for leaving others alone. For liberty conflicts with the contrary desire to control others. That desire arises from instincts that are just as deeply seated in humans as the yearning for liberty -- aggressiveness, avarice, envy, fear, mistrust, and sloth, for example.

Absent coercion, the conflicting desires for liberty and for control are reconciled through political bargaining. The term "political bargaining" does not connote the creation of a state or the use of state power to strike a balance between liberty and control. For politics is "the process and method of decision-making for groups of human beings [which is] observed in all human group interactions." Each party to a political bargain acquires certain rights, that is, claims on the other parties to the bargain, which the other parties acknowledge and for which they receive reciprocal claims of one kind or another.

Political bargaining becomes more complex as a group's numbers grow. Factions arise, with each faction preferring a package of rights that differs from the packages preferred by other factions. If the resulting centrifugal force is not great enough to cause the group to splinter, a shifting coalition of factions will dominate the group's decision process. And from that shifting coalition will emerge a shifting package of rights.

As long as the then-dominant coalition operates through persuasion and without resort to force or the threat of force -- and as long as no member of the group is compelled to remain in the group -- the resulting package of rights is consensual. Each member of the group, by remaining a member of the group, effectively agrees to accept certain rights (e.g., mutual defense) as compensation for the loss or diminution of other rights (e.g., a reduction of personal autonomy because of the demands of mutual defense).

At some point, however, a state arises,
  • as the outcome of a struggle between competing coalitions, in which the coalitions resort to force to settle their differences,
  • as an antidote to violent anarchy, or
  • because the then-dominant coalition seeks to perpetuate its particular conception of rights.
Rights then lose their consensual basis; instead, they are determined by the coalition that controls the state's decision process, which is backed by superior force. That coalition -- not the community as a whole -- decides the package of rights and the distribution of the cost of securing those rights. Members of the group may opt out only by leaving the geographic territory controlled by the state, that is, by leaving their homes, their jobs, and their friends and relatives.

The state may lack sufficient power to force all of its subjects to adhere to its dictates, but the state's ability to discipline blatant violations of official norms keeps most of its subjects in line. Some small groups (e.g., polygamous communes) may form for the purpose of evading state control and adopting group-specific packages of rights to which their members give common consent. But the state, in an effort to deter such rebelliousness and to maintain its dominance, seeks to suppress or destroy such groups whenever they gain notoriety.

The state could create and enforce a package of rights that is biased toward liberty -- if the proper coalition controls the state's decision process. That is what happened in the American experience, for a time. But that time has passed, as the package of rights envisioned by the Founders and enshrined by the Framers has been discarded by power-seeking politicians who have pandered to avarice, envy, fear, mistrust, and sloth.

Would we be better off with anarchy? Only as long as it is non-violent and fosters consensual decision-making. But, given human nature, anarchy leads to violence and violence leads to the creation of a state.

The choice then, is not between anarchy and the state, but between a minimal state that is disposed toward liberty and a state that is more or less disposed toward control. History and current events suggest that a repetition of the American experience would be nothing more than temporary good luck.