Saturday, August 23, 2003

In considering challenges to our rights, I believe it is helpful to distinguish between human rights and civil rights. Human rights are those that arise simply by the fact of being human. Examples would be right not to be tortured, and the right to have children. Civil rights are those that arise from creation of political entities. Examples of these rights would be right to vote, and right to petition the government.

Of the two, human rights trump civil rights. Human rights do not depend on the existence of a state or of a particular political system for their observance.

While rights are often though of in the abstract as positive, (e.g. right to an education) in practice they involve restraining an external power. (Right not to have someone interfere with your education.) Rights, properly thought of, do not exist as a “freedom” to do as one wishes, but more pragmatically involve what one can get away with. Rights can not be defined in the absence of some power that can limit human action. Rights therefore are not the affirmative assertion of power by the holder of the right, they are the practical constraint on any power that might limit such action.

Friday, August 22, 2003

Regarding the Patriot Act, I have a couple of observations. When one’s family member dies, people afford the grieving survivors some latitude in dealing with their loss. Work schedules are accommodated, lapses in manners are excused and so forth. A similar situation existed in the United States after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Some over-reaction in the interest of collective grieving and constructive efforts to prevent a recurrence were understandable. However, as with the grief accompanying an individual loss, things eventually return to normal, as I believe they should in the area of civil liberties. I particularly object to the provisions regarding indefinite detentions without charges, and the degradation of due process.

Furthermore, I do not trust the government to restrain itself when presented with expanded powers. In at least two areas, those being seizures of property from innocent third persons in drug cases and the ridiculous excesses of “zero tolerance laws.” The government and its agents have not shown the type of self-restraint necessary to entrust them with greater powers. This is especially so when exercise of those powers will be largely beyond scrutiny.

This actually is not a knock against the government. I like policies and procedures that make my job easier, as I’m sure do most people entrusted with great responsibilities. But when the ease of protecting something (such as civil liberties) involves corrupting the thing being protected, the line has been crossed. I don’t fault Ashcroft for asking for more powers; that is after-all within the scope of his job. But he is asking that those powers be taken at the detriment of liberties that I, as a free citizen, have as much responsibility in upholding as does any officer of the United Sates government. Therefore, when Mr. Ashcroft asks for greater powers at my sufferance, I believe that I should politely say “no.”
Liberty is more important than democracy. If the Wright brothers only had the right to vote, the best they could have done was to cancel out the votes of a couple of addled statists whereas, given the liberty to pursue their interests, they produced powered flight. There is one benefit to democracy that should not be overlooked however, and results from a fundamental truth about human nature.

The strongest motivating human emotion is not fear. Human beings are much more averse to feelings of helplessness. People will confront enormous fears to avoid the noxious sense that they are powerless. For demonstrations of this point I refer to the actions of Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor and September 11, 2001. People engaged in all sorts of activities of seemingly little practical value in the interest of “dong something.” What they were doing was proving to themselves that they were not helpless. The concept that aversion to feelings of helplessness is a potent force in human nature is also suggested by the ubiquity of revenge. Vengeance is the practical statement “even though you harmed me, I am not helpless. See? I can harm you too.”

Failure to appreciate how powerful the aversion to helplessness is perpetuates the futility of terrorism. The misguided goal of terrorism is to instill fear, which theoretically will prompt submission. What it does instead is arouse the notion of helpless and provoke a response that merely perpetuates the cycle.

Which brings up the point about democracy. Even if a people had liberty guaranteed by a benevolent dictator, the cumulative toll of feeling that their destiny is out of their hands would eventually lead to revolution. Many Democrats feel that the “selection” of our current president was out of their hands, and resort to tactics such as filibusters to reaffirm their potency. Were it not for the prospect that aggrieved voters can affirm that they are not powerless in affecting policies with which they disagree, our democracy would be much more prone to political violence. That is the real benefit of democracy. It makes people patient to suffer the liberty of others, and channels demand for change thorough more productive processes. Democracy nurtures the notion not only that citizens have liberty, but that they also have power.