Thursday, January 10, 2008

Common Error #2

The Adam Smith Institute is running a series of Common Errors in political and economic thinking. Or, rather, non-thinking. The following one is particularly important and I reproduce it here in full.
  1. "When the state gives us rights, we have responsibilities to it in return."

    The state doesn't give us any rights; we give the state some powers. The rights we enjoy are not political ones given to us by some gracious authority; they are ones we owe to each other as human beings. Each right has its corresponding duty. One person's right to life corresponds to the obligation upon others not to take that life. One's right to property translates into another's duty not to steal.

    We choose governments for our convenience, although some less fortunate people have them imposed by violence. They derive from our rights rather than constituting the source of them. In a free society, for our convenience we might choose to delegate our right to justice to an impartial authority of our peers. We might choose to band together for our joint defence against hostile intrusion. This is how the powers which government wields come about.

    We owe responsibilities to each other. Most importantly we owe to others the obligation to respect their rights. But we do not owe responsibilities to the state; it owes to us the responsibility to carry our fairly and properly the tasks we have assigned to it. Government is not our master, to keep us in line and occasionally give us some rights for ourselves. It is our servant, employed by us to perform as instructed.

    The English common law tradition recognizes that people can do whatever the law does not specifically forbid, but in the continental Napoleonic Code tradition, people can only do what the law specifically allows. This leads people falsely to suppose that the state is giving them these rights, when it would be more accurate to say that the state is recognizing those rights. Our responsibility to behave fairly and decently is something we owe to other people, not to government.

This is very important and rather the opposite of how government would like to imagine it. The state wants us to believe that we have responsibilities to the state because that makes us subservient to it.

Don't let anyone start spouting this crap at you: in fact, you should counter it at every opportunity and we may yet change the attitude of the people. And that blessed day will see a bonfire of the state—the lamp-posts adorned with corrupt MPs, self-serving Civil Servants and lazy public sector administrators, all tap-dancing on air, in unison, as we newly-freed serfs throw rocks at their twitching bodies.

10 comments:

Croydonian said...

"Ask not what the government can do for you, ask what the government is doing to you".

If I could remember the author, I'd give full credit....

Max Van Horn said...

This should be taught to every child in this land as one of the primary principles of true freedom.

Anonymous said...

"...but in the continental Napoleonic Code tradition, people can only do what the law specifically allows."

Not true. the Napoleonic system codifies crimes. If it's not in the code it's not illegal and you can't be prosecuted for it. Everything else, just as in the common law, is legal.

Peter S.

Anonymous said...

Actually, in Britain Parliament is Sovereign and devolves power to the people. In Britain parliament could decide to abolish/suspend elections, as happened in WW2. If parliament were to allow a referendum, the result would not be binding on it.
In Ireland we devolve power to our parliament, via a constitution, therefore the government is obliged to have a referendum on the European Constitution, and that result is binding.

anthonynorth said...

It's all in the titles - Civil SERVANT, SECRETARY of State. I think the main reason they forget they work for us today is that we've allowed mega-corporations to decide national economies, so the above think they work for them.
To make things different we need to work on the means of our economy as well as the State.

Hazel Stone said...

"And that blessed day will see a bonfire of the state—the lamp-posts adorned with corrupt MPs, self-serving Civil Servants and lazy public sector administrators, all tap-dancing on air, in unison, as we newly-freed serfs throw rocks at their twitching bodies."

I think I have a bit of a crush now...

verity said...

Are there enough lamposts in Britain to include the quangocrats in the air tap-dancing?

Roger Thornhill said...

This is why I prefer to use the following:

Freedoms come with duty/responsibilities upon the same person that has the freedom, e.g. the responsibility to respect the equal or superior freedoms of others.

A right comes with an obligation enforced upon a third party to enable/provide that right.

You have the freedom of speech, but a right to welfare. A right to welfare can only occur if an obligation to pay for it is enforced.

Machiavelli's Understudy said...

In a free society, for our convenience we might choose to delegate our right to justice to an impartial authority of our peers. We might choose to band together for our joint defence against hostile intrusion.

This raises a question for me- when the statement talks about 'we' 'might choose', does it mean 'we' collectively or individually? I hope it would mean individually, but then it raises the even more important question of what happens when somebody choose not to delegate their sovereign powers, which is surely their right to deny? What if they take justice in to their own hands? Do we expel them from our communities? Surely they have a right to live whereever they feel, particularly if they have somewhere their home?

zeno said...

Amen, DK.

That wonderful line from "V for Vendetta" should be carved on the forehead of every MP and civil servant:

"People should not be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people."