By Ryan Lau | @agorists
Enlightenment-era philosopher John Locke was a vocal supporter of the idea of rights. His famous works outlined life, liberty, and property as the three basic natural rights in the world. Though granted by an all-powerful force (nature or a creator), a government would protect these rights. However, Locke’s perception of the very idea of rights is simply inaccurate. In the grand scheme of things, a right to perform an action means very little, as it cannot stop an ensuing consequence from occurring.
First, it is worth noting that government is a downright awful guardian of rights. Inherently, the state takes away both the liberty and the property of nearly every individual it claims to protect. When it signs into a law a bill regarding a victimless act, the state usurps liberty. And, when that state takes time and money from the people via conscription and taxation to execute and enforce said law, it usurps property. Thus, with nearly every action it takes, a state is in violation of two of the three Lockean principles. This, of course, throws a wrench into the idea of a government protecting rights.
Now, if a government is not the solution, what is? Surely, there must be a way to guard these rights. After all, they have been touted as the cornerstones of a free society for hundreds of years. Yet, as stated above, the allegedly free society’s function relies on restricting the very rights it claims to protect. This progression of thought leads many, including me, to abandon the notion of a successful state, instead believing that an anarchist community will best guard rights.
Alas, a society without rulers will clearly have its flaws, too. In the absence of police and prison, there will be some people able to infringe more upon the rights of others. Simply stated, the existence of a right will never stop someone from infringing upon it. The idea of a right is actually quite similar to the idea of a gun-free zone. If a shooter has an intent of murder, then a sign that tells them they cannot shoot will in no way prevent them from doing so. Though the sign has a good intention, it does nothing, as the gunman has a stronger motive.
The exact same concept applies to the idea of a right to life. Sure, all humans, according to Locke, have a right to life. Yet, that right seemingly dissolves when the gunman pulls his trigger. The right to life, in itself, does no more to actually guard lives than does a gun-free zone sign. In fact, it may be less effective, as the sign may be a slight crime deterrent in a few instances. Hence, a society without a state operates only marginally better than one with a state, when both claim protection of rights as an ultimate goal. Sadly, this renders the very idea of rights to be insignificant to a society’s mode of function.
If not rights, then what should determine the workings of a society? In short, the answer is based on morality and on true, informed consent. More specifically, it involves ensuring, on a local level, that every individual is treated in an acceptable manner, by their own standards. It is wrong to assume that a singular definition of “right” will work for a large group of people. In fact, such an assumption may be one of very few objective wrongs in this world. Such an assumption allows for the great inhumanity of misunderstanding.
In the vast world we humans live in, it is impossible to count the sheer number of cultures, ideologies, and philosophies that exist in it. This is because that number is in constant flux, rising with every birth, and falling with every death. How, then, can we ever trust a state to seek the interest of all of them? The thought is a naive impossibility, especially with the state’s inherent tendency to rob. A single anarchist idea will fail, in nearly the same way. It simply does not come even close to representing the vast scope of ideas present in the world. The only idea that can truly guard the subjective needs of all, is no idea at all.
Without a designated philosophy, a written or unwritten code of ethics, individuals can be free to form their own. Yet, unlike with a state, or even an anarchist community, a true lack of designation allows for people to create multiple unions with those of differing values. In a state, trade barriers often limit the access people have with those bound by other states. In anarchist communities, strict economic and social guidelines may do the same. It is only when no community is given preference, that all can thrive at once.
In such a realm, may some violations of individual standards still occur? Of course they will. Such is human nature, and the imperfect state of our planet. Yet, when we abandon the universal concept of rights, and instead focus on the needs of the individual, we move away from imperfection. In the gunman scenario before, imagine the scene occurring in a hospital bed. The victim is terminally ill, yet the hospital’s policy prohibits a swift end to the victim’s suffering. Now, the gunman is no evil force; he is rather trying to meet the needs of the sick man. Objective rights would state that the gunman is evil, and violating the sick man’s right to life. Yet, voluntary action and individual need trump the very concept of rights in every situation concerning an individual’s own self.
Objective standards for a society are an incredibly dangerous chasm, in which most of us have fallen. Rights are merely a long-standing manifestation of this chasm. Yet, hope still exists for the world, and by moving away from a preference for objective standards, we begin to return to a moral existence.