Monday, October 13, 2008

Rights and responsibilities: some random thoughts

I've been mulling over phrases today. Sayings can become well travelled paths that act more like incantations than contributions to conversations. For example, there is the idea that you can have "no rights without responsibilities" generally agreed to have come from, I think, Hobbes' Leviathan.

The idea of a social contract is not one that is completely unhelpful - but I do think ideas, if they're bandied around often enough, become meaningless. More than that though, they embody a particular way of looking at the world that may have some, internal, consistency but does not necessarily represent an incontestable truth.

It seems that almost every time I hear the phrase "there are no rights without responsibilities" invoked it is in favour of a stronger state, never in favour of the rights half of the equation. At least "no taxation without representation" has an emphasis on getting a return for your money.

For me one of the reasons the idea of a social contract falls down is when did I sign it? A contract is an agreement which requires different parties to sign on the dotted line. This has not happened in my life time, not even figuratively. Hobbes thought revolutionary upheavals act as renegotiations when things got too far out of kilter, but this is all too intangible for me.

If I've signed a contract I want to know what my side of the bargain is and what I'm getting in return. Which leads me neatly to my next point. Society is not a restaurant. I'm not a consumer handing over a dollar and getting a biscuit. If I don't like the quality of service I can't send society back, although I'm not against the idea in principle, sounds fun.

If the government does not give me my rights I don't get a certificate saying I no longer have to hold to my responsibilities. Essentially there is no material connection between the two. There are a number of "rights" some of which are embodied in law that we can call upon if we feel the need. There are a number of things the state tells us we have to do (pay taxes, keep your papers up to date, etc). There is no mechanism that connects the two except an ideological justification for the state's existence. It's window dressing.

It gives us things we had to fight to get from it in the first place (the right to vote for example) and in return we're not just expected to feel grateful, we have to give it things that we have not yet been able to abolish (the funding for the monarchy for instance). This rights and responsibilities business is actually lipstick on a dog's breakfast.

What is a right anyway? Food three times a day? Polite service at the dole office? The right to know how many cheese burgers John Prescott has ever eaten? The US, and many other countries, has a constitution which does lay out a rather fetishised form of rights, but even that essentially comes down to interpretation.

The second amendment, passed in 1791, says that "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." But you can see right there, in the days before our modern military came into being, an amendment intended to ensure that the people, as a body, had the ability to defend themselves for the "security of a free state" has been used to give the "right" of anyone with a mind to to have an Uzi on the mantelpiece.

But when the Black Panthers tried to organise a well regulated militia the state went nuts. It's only in the observance of the rules that rights become anything more than abstractions.

Whilst I've no argument with a society that encourages us to be socially responsible and gives every citizen a set of rights - this is not the same thing as creating some sort of link between the two that does not really exist. It seems to me that factors like civil rights struggles, economic shifts, political battles and class fissures have far more to do with forming and maintaining the relationship of citizens to their state than some sort of abstract contract that we can't even look at and don't remember signing.

For me I think we need to develop an understanding of society that takes in its organic and shifting nature. That we aren't consumers of rights but participants in our communities. When the state tells us we have to do something it isn't a contract we've agreed to - but we'd better do it anyway or suffer the consequences.

I suspect that the concept of a trade between the individual and the state is one that cuts against the idea of collective bargaining, or that perhaps one day we'll create a democracy where we're the state and the contract is with one another, not a powerful and armed other.


Green Gordon said...

Late response:
In legal terms, a contract does not require signing anything. It involves a mutual exchange of consideration. E.g. Rights given for Responsibilities received. In that sense, it there is a sort of contract. Not a legal one, but a workable idea of one.

Jim Jay said...

But surely Gordon contracts are voluntary? You opt in to them - but I'm not even allowed to opt out of the social contract.

(I wonder if anyone noticed that I first posted this as Sue Luxton? Has anyone ever seen us together... are we the same person?)

Gordon said...

Well, yes, that's why it's a social contract, not a legal one. It's about implied moral responsibilities, which you may agree with or not, but which it's taken that society as a whole benefits from.

Anyway, I'm not necessarily in favour of State power (I guess it depends on the nature of the state, I'm not a libertarian either) but even if there's not a direct trade off, there is in an indirect one.

Why should we prop up the machinery of the state? Why should we pay taxes? Why should we respect the law.

In theory because the state will protect our rights domestically and internationally.

If there's a breakdown in either sides' responsibilities, there will be a break down in the other side's rights.