How Not to Defend Individual Rights

I got my hopes up with this one. In Tibor Machan's column in the Yuma Sun, Foundation of rights continues to be questioned, he identifies a key problem. He covers some of the arguments on both sides of the philosophical debate about the metaphysical vs. social grounding of rights, and criticizes the common perception that "the idea of rights is no longer based on human nature but on governmental power."

But there are significant problems with his column, mostly in the realm of what he doesn't say. Machan gets agonizingly close to doing it right and he does have some good things to say, so I have a hard time fully criticizing him for it... but though he hints at the problems associated with denying the metaphysical foundation of individual rights, he does a poor job of clearly putting forth the answer I know he knows.

On top of that, he never enumerates the key individual rights to life, liberty, and property, even though he mentions Locke. He never even calls them individual rights, but shies away from such straightforward language in favor of the oddly redundant, "individual (human) rights."

And his bit at the end about Chinese dissidents having a better grasp on the issue than Americans is certainly pithy, but misguided.
And, ironically, it is now in countries across the globe that have had and still have governments that violate rights all over the place that the American Founders' and John Locke's views are dominant. For example, the Chinese Charter 08 group, under the leadership of Liu Xiaoba and 302 dissidents, has written as follows:

"Human rights are not bestowed by a state. Every person is born with inherent rights to dignity and freedom. The government exists for the protection of the human rights of its citizens. The exercise of state power must be authorized by the people. The succession of political disasters in China's recent history is a direct consequence of the ruling regime's disregard for human rights." [bold added]
Where are these ideas dominant? I admit that my knowledge of the Chinese dissident intelligentsia is less than it could be, but I'd be shocked if "life, liberty, and property," was a more widespread rallying cry in China than it is here in the US. Granted, it is vital that it gains greater acceptance here, and on the fundamental level which the study of Ayn Rand's ideas can give, but asserting that such ideas are dominant in China seems to need much more evidence behind it than Machan provides.

Also concerning is that the dissidents parrot the vague, undefinable language of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. More power to them as they fight a tyrannical regime, but they shouldn't use the UN as a source for political philosophy and arguments for individual rights and liberty. And I dare anyone to define "dignity" in this context as a "human right." Even Kantian philosophers have identified this problem.

As I have said before, "human rights" is an anti-concept that serves to demean and destroy the valid concept of individual rights, and "dignity" is purposefully vague so as to admit any definition -- especially those that assert "positive rights."

I'm surprised and disappointed at what Machan omitted -- a more thorough description of what individual rights are, where they come from, and why they're so crucial in a political context, as well as a specific reference to Ayn Rand and her key ideas which would have made all his points for him -- so much so that it seems to be an elephant in the room. Why dance around the points that would make his argument, and the thinkers to whom those ideas should be attributed? Assuming he was writing for a lay audience, such clarity would have helped to get his ideas across much more effectively.

It is always good to see a defense of individual rights because it's crucial to promote such ideas , but this particular op-ed was, on the whole, a missed opportunity.


Burgess Laughlin said...

You might find this Wikipedia article informative:


C. August said...

Thanks for the link. I hadn't looked him up on Wikipedia, but I am familiar with some of his work and some of his positions. It's because I know he is well aware of Rand and has written some good things in support of the proper foundation of individual rights that I was surprised at this particular column.

I assume you have a perspective on this... what's your take?

Tibor Machan said...

So I am asked to lay out the full case for individual rights in a column roughly 650 words long and chided for not doing so. Alas, perhaps the reader ought to do a bit of research and discover my books Human Rights and Human Liberties (1975) and Individuals and Their Rights (1989) and save himself embarrassment.

C. August said...

I fully understand the difficulties that come with compressing big arguments into few words. I just thought the way you constructed the arguments wasn't as forceful or effective as it could have been, even given the space constraints. It seems like there was an opportunity to get some important ideas in front of people who wouldn't see them otherwise, and I thought the opportunity was missed.

I own Individuals and Their Rights (though I haven't picked it up in over 10 years, admittedly) which is one of the reasons I was surprised by this particular column. Also, I read your comment on Julian Sanchez's blog where I had posted farther up the comment thread a couple of months ago, where you ripped into Cass Sunstein in spectacular fashion (see Comment #40). I know a blog comment is _very_ different than a published op-ed, but I had hoped to see more of that fire in the op-ed.

I'm also still confounded by your assertion that "ironically, it is now in countries across the globe that have had and still have governments that violate rights all over the place that the American Founders' and John Locke's views are dominant." Perhaps "dominant" is my sticking word.

This is especially in light of the fact that those Chinese dissidents in your example also use the UN-inspired "dignity" concept, which has been seized upon by scholars and legal theorists who follow in the Comte, Kant, Marx mould that you attacked in your Cass Sunstein comment. (Take a look at "The Founding Function of Human Dignity in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" by Klaus Dicke, and The Concept of Human Dignity in European and US Constitutionalism" by Giovanni Bognetti.)

Basically, this non-concept of dignity -- which the authors I cited fully recognized as having no objective definition, but instead a "social relativist" meaning -- is actually harmful because it rests on no real foundation, and smuggles in all sorts of contradictory ideas including those antithetical to individual rights. It actually makes me sad that the ideas being transmitted to these people dedicated to freedom in China are so tragically mixed.

I know you can't get into something like that in a 650 word column. But even with an economy of words, I was hoping for a stronger, clearer, more forceful case.