Saturday, April 18, 2009

Samizdata: sticking it to the politicos again

Only a few weeks ago, your humble Devil was lamenting to a Samizdata contributor about how that blog was a mere ghost of its former self—infrequent and uninspired posting had reduced it to a libertarian curiosity rather than the inspiring and incisive read that it had once been.

Luckily, whilst Smeargate (ugh!) has demolished Labour's credibility, it seems to have revitalised Samizdata: the writing there is once more driven and driving. I particularly liked this post by Thaddeus Tremayne...
What follows next after Mr. Brown and his minions have been given the big, national elbow? Well, in due course (and perhaps even short course) Mr. Brown will be replaced by Mr. Not-Brown. And what lessons will Mr. Not-Brown have learned from the rise and ignoble fall of Mr. Brown? He will have learned that you can relentlessly plunder the wealth-producing sector of the economy in order to provide booty for your clients and be regarded as a visionary leader. He will have learned that you can establish a pettyfogging, pecksniffing, bullying surveillance state and be called a great statesman. He will have learned that you can hack at a once-prosperous economy with punitive taxes and onerous regulations until said economy collapses in an anaemic heap and be praised as an economic genius. And, crucially, he will have learned that you can get away with doing all of that, as long as you observe parliamentary protocols and refrain from seeking to smear your political classmates. That is unacceptable.

So Mr. Not-Brown has had his very simple manifesto handed to him on a plate, courtesy of his predecessor. All Mr. Not-Brown has to do is to pledge to 'clean up' politics and put a stop to all this lack of propriety and he is home and hosed. He doesn't even have to keep his pledge because everyone will be so relieved that Mr. Not-Brown is not Mr. Brown that they will believe him. They will want to believe him and so he will get a free pass to do pretty much whatever takes his fancy. All Mr. Not-Brown has to do (for a couple of years at least) is to make sure that his toadies and his cronies and his aunts keep their cards closer to their chests while they get on with what everybody agrees to be the praiseworthy and important business of stamping on our faces.

Mr. Not-Brown (who will probably be Mr. Buttered-New-Potato) will do precisely this, and this once great country will sink ever more deeply into the mire.

And why? Because, as Philip Chaston so eloquently posts, we are all subjects now.
In 1997 I was still a citizen. Now I am a subject: not a subject of the Crown but the subject of a new beast, one that stretches from Whitehall to Brussels. Roger Scruton has defined a subject as follows:
Subjection is the relation between the state and the individual that arises when the state need not account to the individual, when the rights and duties of the individual are undefined or defined only partially and defeasibly, and where there is no rule of law that stands higher than the state that enforces it.

This is a contentious argument, but our rights are overdetermined and overdefined on paper, arbitrary in exertion, incompetent in execution. Moreover, the European Union under the Treaty of Lisbon confers the authority of a bureaucratic state based upon a law no higher than itself, which can annul and strike out all rights, as power overrides law.

In practice, bureaucratic accretions, quangos and the vomit of regulation have encouraged a culture of subjection. This may have roots prior to New Labour but it acquired its final flowering under this pestilent regime, and discarded the final brakes upon its power: demanding that we are subject to them, civil servants in name, masters in form. ID cards, databases, surveillance and dependency.

The crux of the argument is this: once upon a time, our rights were only those which did not need to be defined—what some would call "negative rights"—and which were centred around the human right, basically, to be left the fuck alone.

Now, our rights are described and circumscribed by the state—so-called "positive rights"—and it is the state that defines what our rights are, and the state, therefore, can also remove those rights.

For example, when the state defines that citizens have "the right to an education", what it actually means is "the right to an education provided by the state and funded through the extortion of money from other citizens".

"Surely, Devil," some will cry, "this is a bit of a leap of imagination?" No, not really: let me amplify.

There is no such thing as free education and if someone cannot afford to pay for an education for their child, then the money must come from someone else. And the only way that you can absolutely guarantee that this money can be obtained—as opposed to, for instance, soliticiting charity—is to know that it can be stolen from someone else.

And the money must be stolen from someone else because the state has said that the right to an education is a fundamental "human right": therefore, not only must the right to an education be delivered upon, but it morally supercedes the right not to have the product of one's hard work stolen by force (because being allowed to keep one's own property is not, you see, a "human right").

And the only organisation that can be allowed to steal people's property by force is the state. This is not only to allow the state to keep order, but also because any other agency which was allowed to steal from people would be a competitor to the state—a challenger to its power—and thus absolutely cannot be allowed.

(There are agencies in the UK other than the central government who are allowed to steal to fund their programmes, of course; these include the Scottish government and local councils. However, they depend upon the central government for their power, much of their money and, indeed, their very existence; they are thus part of the collective entity known as "the state".)

And since the state is the only entity that can legitimately steal from people, the state is the only entity that can guarantee "the right to an education" and, by extension, all of those other "positive rights" that are now defined.

And so, because our rights are now defined by the state, we have become subjects—vassals of the state—and have simultaneously entrenched the rights of the state to continue to steal off us.

For, if human rights (as they are now legally defined) are an absolute moral good and the state is the only entity that can deliver those rights, then the very existence of the state itself must be an absolute moral good.

And if the state is an absolute moral good, then the state's right to steal off individuals must also be an absolute moral good. As such, the state-defined "positive human rights" must trump—both practically and morally—any individual rights at all.

As such, the state is now the most important entity in the country; it is far more important than any individual or collection of individuals.

And that is why we are treated with such contempt by our rulers: because they are an absolute moral good and we are merely aphids to their ants—aphids to be farmed for our sweet sap—so that the state can deliver to us our "human rights".

And that is why our freedoms have never been so clearly defined and yet so clearly non-existent.


Martin said...

Many times I have tried to explain this crucial difference to people; it rarely sinks in. To such people, a right is a right is a right. There's no "types" of right. They see no difference between "The Right of freedom of speech" and "The right to healthcare".
Maybe it's just the people I've been talking to (Mostly Socialist Students), but this ignorance seems to be a bit of an epidemic.

RobW said...

Excellent post DK.

I think Rob Paul put it quite well when he said...

"These are not rights they are demands."

Anonymous said...

Does anyone still consider themselves a subject of the Crown?

NickM said...

I agree DK, Sami has come back to life. I was worrying. First blog I ever commented on.

William Cobbett said...

Anonymous said...

Does anyone still consider themselves a subject of the Crown?

Only if thre's an axe man in employ, to keep said Crown from funny ideas about their station....

Faux Cu said...

We are not citizens, not even subjects, we are the accused, of whatever they accuse us.

That is it, "The Accused."

Guilty until proven innocent.

Worse than Medieval fuedalism.

Morus said...

If you're going to attach any weight to ridiculous notions like the incoherent language of rights, then this is the mess you get into.

You shouldn't have your personal life interfered with, you shouldn't have the power of the State used to limit your opinions', and you shouldn't have our property unlawfully seized - problem is, as soon as you re-write those as 'a right to be left alone', 'a right to free expression' and 'a right to own property' you buy into rights language.

Rights language was once useful, in spite of its incoherence and lack of philosophical foundation. Unfortunately, that lack of philosophical foundation (declare them 'self-evident' and you've lost the debate) means that anyone can claim them, and if they do so forcefully enough, eventually they are accepted. Once accepted, it follows that they are universal. Once universal, they compete with existing claims (also cloaked in rights language) and the incoherence actually starts to ruin the world.

Nothing would make me happier than to have the canon of Libertarian thought rewritten without reference to 'rights'. They are an awful, and unnecessary, concept that will continue to do more harm than good.

TomC said...

Man has one natural right: the right to exist. DK is using this as a basis for his argument. This is not "re-writing" the "incoherent language of rights". The two notions are very different.

The incoherence and obfuscation are a deliberate attempt to subvert the nature of freedom, and only do more harm than good because our enemies take advantage of the fact that people have a tendency to accept ideas without sufficiently questioning them.

It is coherent and does have a philosophical foundation, that's how you can tell which rights are real and which are collectivist propaganda. Generally, people don't spend enough time developing the ideas we need if we truly value freedom and what it represents. It's a shame, because without these ideas, it is impossible to understand the true nature amd importance of freedom; or the depths of the malevolence of collectivism.

Morus said...


No, they are both using rights language - different and distinct types of rights, I'll grant you, but they share a common language, and a common philosphical root - like the Isaac and Ishmael of political thought.

Where are rights from? What separates the real ones from the fake ones that are claimed? What foundation do they have?

You say man has one natural right? What do you mean? Bestowed by God? In accordance with 'Natural Law'? A 'self-evident truth'? I'm guessing your not taking a legal positivist position, so what's the genesis of this claimed right? It's first mention in works of philosophy? When in history did we realise we had it? Was it always universal, or is that a new step?

Why should I believe that single right exists?

I know DK isn't re-writing Libertarianism without rights language - I just wish he would, because someone should. It would be a stunning philosophical project.

Let's assume your leanings and beliefs for a freer society are right, and the HRA crowd are wrong - but if you insist on using that language, there's little to separate you. Your claims of 'rights' are as phony as theirs. More to the point, I'm not sure you need them - rights language has become the lazy way of talking about freedom. Try avoiding it, and I don't think you'll lose anything.

TomC said...

Without wishing to get us bogged down in the details of the philosophies of Hobbes and Locke, I would say that the right to exist is indeed self-evident. It's foundation is man's own life. Without it he would not survive. If we cannot agree on this we can go no further.

Man's right to exist has two important characteristics. Firstly it is a natural right. No social construct is necessary to validate it, and to deny it is to deny the existence of man. Secondly it applies to the individual. It is not possible for social rights to exist. They are a contradiction in terms.

All other “rights” are logically derived from this. This is how we know if a “right” is real or not.

We cannot avoid this fundamental issue, and “rights language” is not the lazy way of talking about freedom. More correctly, it has become the evasive way of attempting to validate collectivist theory.

The whole notion of liberty and how it applies to man and the contradictions of collectivism are fundamentally linked to the issue of man's right to exist. Without these, we cannot describe freedom in any meaningful way.

Roger Thornhill said...

Surely it is not that a man has a right to exist, but rather another does not have a right to interfere in that existence without consent unless to defend against interference by that individual upon another (self defence).

To say one has a right to exist may mean that someone has to uphold that, which could then mean food, water, shelter and healthcare. It could also mean childcare, for the definition of life involves reproduction.

We have a responsibility to do no harm. Only when we breech that should we expect action to be taken against us.

We (must) have the freedom to exist, not the "right".

TomC said...

When we say that “man has a right to exist”, we are really only establishing an observation, as opposed to making a claim – Man is Man, A is A.

When and if we accept this as a “right”, it then follows that to uphold it is necessarily to accept that no other man may violate it.

Furthermore, if man requires the use of his rational mind in order to reason, since his survival is not automatic as it is for other animals, then in order to exist, man must have the unimpeded right to the product of his own work, since he can only live by thinking and manipulating his environment.

This then means that man must have a right to his own property, and that this must morally be free from violation by other men (the implementation of the right to exist).

This is the essence of any philosophical discrediting of collectivism, since as soon as any man's property is sacrificed to the collective, the conceptual chain leading from man's right to exist falls over like a chain of dominoes.

A collective of men cannot exist – its reality is only the individual existences of all other men of which it is made. Hence you cannot have collective rights.

Not only can we use this as an organic argument against collectivism, but we can understand man's natural ethics and morality, without reference to subjective social constructs.

Roger Thornhill said...


In that interpretation, I concur.

Anonymous said...

DK, fair dos on the comment about Samizdata. Part of the trouble has been that I have been writing a high percent of the comments and probably was getting worn out or running out of new things to say. Saying that Brown is an oppressive arsehole, that Obama is an overated blowhard and Will Hutton is a tit day after day gets a bit dull. But then that applies to a lot of blogs on our side of the fence.

Johnathan Pearce

Devil's Kitchen said...


Yes, I knew that; it's no insult, mate, blog fatigue comes to us all and Samizdata was still a good read.