October 27, 2011

To have a right, then, is, I conceive, to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of.
- John Stuart Mill

The true irony of all "inalienable" individual rights, especially in a libertarian context, is that it takes societal structure to ensure their existence. In the absence of such a structure, people are left to fend for themselves: and "inalienable" rights quickly go out the window.

In the absence of an abstract societal structure where we can trust people we don't really know to make governing laws on our behalf, the default unit of society is always the family. In the absence of such structure, a person can rely on nothing but family.

In modern western societies today, where there is a reasonable amount of wealth, that family is usually nuclear. In most other societies, even in the poorest parts of western society, that family is extended: for precisely reasons of self-sustainability against the reality that no other social structure is able to defend the family's continued survival. Even with guns, a nuclear family with a typical 2.3 children is simply not large enough to both feed itself and to protect itself from the level of outside threats which arises when all other social structure ceases to exist.

Family, extended far enough, becomes essentially clannish, which gives rise to tribalism.

A reliable and trusted social structure is the only thing that keeps us from tribal-style anarchy: trust in government, trust in the instruments of government, trust even that licensing serves a purpose in social structures which have grown beyond "the immediate neighbours". From the libertarian perspective, licensing is unnecessary government interference. Yet modern business is not transacted only between people who already know each other. The licence thus becomes a statement of trustworthiness: None of this is needed where both buyer and seller know each other -- or, alternately, where either buyer or seller hold near complete power in the transaction and the other holds none. If the seller holds near complete power, the buyer must buy from that seller, without recourse and no matter what the cost or risk. If the buyer holds near complete power, the seller must sell to that buyer or not sell at all. In these latter cases, trust is replaced by power, and the concept of inalienable rights once again goes out the window.

All conception of rights thus assumes one of benevolent dictatorial power, an equality of power, or some manner of oversight of power with some teeth to it. Without one of these, the concept of rights has no meaning.

Trust is the other half of the equation. It can reinforce a social structure which can support the concept of rights, or its absence can undermine an existing structure utterly.

(Note that I never say "blind trust". Trust must stand in balance with the oversight necessary to ensure that the trust is meritted.)

As might be guessed by the griping over any requirement to be licensed, the most common expression of power is economic. Quite simply: beggars cannot be choosers. Military (and lower-level physical) power is actually secondary to economic power. Cultural power is the third part of this triumvirate: and that may just be starting to really come into its own. Mass media has made it possible to escalate wars over cultural ideals as never before.

Watch, this Hallowe'en, to see how many parents are willing to let children go trick-or-treating house to house. A child, especially a lightly supervised child, cannot walk so far as to leave the immediate neighbourhood. The trick-or-treat Hallowe'en tradition and its many relations around the world is one of the most basic expressions of a simple trust in one's own immediate neighbours: that people who are not closely related can nonetheless have, at the very least, a common human empathy that will not bring harm to another person's children.

A child who does not go trick-or-treating loses this chance of establishing personal independence: going with parents or an older responsible child, and then oneself becoming that older responsible child. At the same time, the child will learn and eventually internalise this bit of mistrust -- of one's own neighbours.

Take away the trust: and all the rest must inevitably crumble.

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