Serious Thoughts 1: Rights

I am an American, and proud of that fact. My nation was founded on a set of philisophical principles which I share. They were revolutionary at the time. Actually, they’re pretty controversial now, if you take them seriously.

I believe that all men – and women – are created equal.

Note that I didn’t say all Americans there. People in the Third World, who don’t speak English and aren’t as wealthy as I am, are my equals. Their suffering matters, and their lives matter.

I believe that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, including the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Again, that means all of us, including people who will use those rights in a way I don’t approve of, and people who will voluntarily relinquish said rights. I will address the issue of liberty, and the missing link to responsibility, another time.

This does not mean that the United States has the right to, for instance, protect these rights for citizens of other countries. But it does mean that any American foreign policy that takes these rights away is a bad idea.

I believe that sovereignity derives from the consent of the governed, and that governments are accountable as a consequence.

This is the one I want to talk about right now, in the light of some reactions to my comments on September 11.

If sovereignity derives from the consent of the governed, then any ruler – monarch, parliament, dictator or president – who is not in power because the people want it that way is a tyrant. This applies whether they are in place because of a coup or are installed by a foreign power. And any society that advocates the displacement of a legitimate ruler, uses its funds to influence foreign elections or civil wars, or directs its efforts to the overthrow of another country’s rulers is participating in tyranny. This is true no matter how much we dislike the ruler in question or his politics. (Note that assisting in making peace, arbitrating between disputants, and keeping the peace with the consent of the people affected are not tyranny.)

This also means that my government is my employee, answerable to me. I have the right to question and even criticise it if I think it is doing the wrong thing. Actually, I have a responsibility to do so. Historically, of course, this right and responsibility have been more honored in the breach than in the observance. Governments don’t like criticism, and when the national mood is particularly fervent, neither do ordinary citizens. That does not dilute the responsibility.

On a more pragmatic note, criticising bad government policy is the only way to get good government policy. No one’s ideas are universally correct; good ideas are developed by discussion and concensus, and bad ones killed by the same process. Writers know this – submitting your work to criticism is the only way to hone and improve it. Government is no different, and it is the duty of responsible citizens to participate in public debate to help improve policy. The most pernicious trend in US public life today is the stifling of this debate, the denial of this responsibilty, and the relentless kowtowing to the government.

But surely, comes the answer, in the national interest, we have to do things that are incompatible with our Constitution? They are unpleasant, but they are necessary.

I believe we cannot write straight with crooked lines. The ends do not justify the means.

Not even desperate times. This is when we need to cling to our principles more tightly than ever.