Thursday, October 21, 2021

Equity vs Rights

There is a realignment of politics that has been occurring around the world for some time. The traditional battle lines between the left and the right are no longer relevant in an age where progressive leaders align with global corporations to suppress free speech and conservative parties are attracting support from low income, working people. The new battle lines are becoming clear. On one side is the globalist, corporatist, governing elites; on the other side is the demos, the hoi polloi, the hard-working common people who keep the world functioning. It is a fight between those who think they are uniquely qualified to run everyone else's lives and those who want to be left alone to run their own lives.

The first group consists of those who regard every issue as a justification for expanding the power of government, whether it is climate change, economic inequality or Covid-19. It doesn't matter what the problem is, the answer is always more steps down the road towards totalitarianism - banning behaviour and views they consider undesirable, intruding more on our privacy, seizing more money from the most productive in society, and restricting movement and freedom of association. These are the people with the power in our society - they are highly organised, very well funded, have almost exclusive control of the mainstream and new media, and are in lockstep on every issue. 

On the other side is a disorganised rabble that often doesn't even know it shares a common interest. Many don't have a strong political philosophy but they tend to be sceptical about the extent of the problems the powerful profess to be concerned about and the solutions promoted by the elites. They accept that humans do have some impact on the climate, that economic inequality is growing by some measures, and that Covid-19 is a real killer, but they are smart enough to realise that they are the ones expected to bear the greatest costs of the solutions while the elites reap the benefits.

The issues are similar across the world but vary in degree from country to country. In the United States, race is the key issue. In Europe, immigration is the main battleground, and national and religious identity are important factors. Here in New Zealand it is Maori tribal rule, rather than race per se, that is the principle cause that the elite has adopted.

Identity politics is at the root of all these fights. The key question is whether your value as a human being is related to some immutable characteristics such as your ancestry, sex or gender and sexuality, or whether it is related to factors that you have some control over, such as your moral character, your behaviour and your achievements. More than three thousand years of Western civilisation led to a social system that put the greatest value on the latter factors - it was the gradual recognition of the dignity and sovereignty of the individual that paved the road to modern, liberal society. This philosophical thread can be traced through Judaism, Athenian democracy, the Roman republic, Christianity, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the abolition of slavery and the establishment of universal suffrage. There was much backsliding along the way, but the direction was overwhelmingly towards judging people as equal in rights regardless of their inherited characteristics.

Equity - equality of outcome - is the professed goal of those on the authoritarian side, but equity is the opposite of equality as understood by Enlightenment thinkers. John Locke, who has as much claim to be called the father of the Enlightenment as anyone, defined equality as the "equal freedom" and said it was dependent upon "not being subject to the will or authority of any other man". In other words, Locke realised that rights are all about the absence of force. 

Equity is the opposite - it means subjecting everyone to the levelling power of some all-powerful authority that must "harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions." Alexander Solzhenitsyn recognised this conflict when he said, "Human beings are born with different capacities. If they are free, they are not equal. And if they are equal, they are not free." 

Those who value equity above all else believe that the means justify the end. If you believe that the purpose of the individual is to serve the good of the collective, there is no limit to what can and should be done to individuals to achieve this. If you believe people are good or bad because of their immutable characteristics, there is no possibility of redemption for their original sins (viz. "white guilt"). And if you believe that the way to achieve equality is to bring those who are "privileged" down to size, sooner or later you are going to start chopping off feet.

Covid-19 has provided governments with the justification for repressing the rights-based freedoms we have taken for granted for decades - freedom of association, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and freedom to operate a business or to go about your work. But governments have been selective in their application of these restrictions - certain businesses considered essential by some arbitrary criteria were allowed to remain open during lockdowns (e.g. in New Zealand supermarkets were open but not butchers), and protests and even violence by groups such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion have been condoned, while small, peaceful gatherings of people that the authorities disapprove of have been treated as insurrections. In other words, Covid-19 has established the principle that rights are the property of the government to bestow on those they see fit, and a privilege to be denied to those who do not have the government's favour.

The former prime minister of New Zealand, John Key, said this very explicitly when talking recently about Covid-19 vaccinations: "If you want to get the young people who are not being vaccinated, to be vaccinated, take away some of their rights." This demonstrates his utter ignorance of the nature of rights. I don't intend to get into a detailed discussion here about the metaphysical and ethical basis of rights, as I have written many earlier posts on the subject, but while philosophers might disagree about the nature and source of rights, almost all agree that rights don't exist at the discretion of governments. The fact that the Nazi regime killed six million Jews in the Holocaust doesn't mean Jews didn't have the right to life. If John Key believes the government can take away rights of young people who aren't vaccinated, then, like many political leaders today, he shares some philosophical principles (or, at least, the lack of them) with the Nazis. Perhaps it is not surprising that his government was only too willing to violate New Zealanders' rights while in power

Philosophers also agree that rights are universal - that they must be capable of being enjoyed by every person - and that they are mutually exclusive - we must each be able to exercise our rights without impinging on others' enjoyment of their rights. The latter is illustrated by the axiom, "your right to swing your arm stops just short of my nose." It is also why there is no such thing as "the right to a roof over your head" (to quote a common shibboleth of the left in New Zealand) - if you have such a right, others must be forced to provide it. I am sure the plantation owners in antebellum America thought they had the right to the free labour of the slaves in their fields (and they certainly had the legal right) but today almost no one would agree that slave ownership is a legitimate right.

Those who promote the equity agenda say it is about the rights of the disadvantaged, but equity is the antithesis of rights precisely because it requires real rights to be sacrificed to grant these arbitrary rights to others. And it is not as if governments that promote equity really act to protect the rights of the disadvantaged. The Ardern Government here in New Zealand has made equity a central plank of all their policies and if we take housing as a prominent example, their policies have significantly worsened housing affordability with the greatest impact on those on the lowest incomes. They have responded by passing laws to further restrict the rights of property-owning New Zealanders in a classic example of how the creation of arbitrary rights by governments depends on the erosion of real rights. The right to a roof over one's head has ended up denying many more New Zealanders homes than if they had simply respected New Zealanders' property rights (i.e. the right to enjoy the product of one's life and liberty) and let the market respond to the need for more housing.

Equity is a threat to real rights precisely because it is so insidious. It sounds like it is about fairness and dignity, and the motives of many promoting it are essentially noble. But few who promote it think through the implications of trying to enforce equality of outcomes on a diverse population with different needs and aspirations, and creating an all-powerful state apparatus to allocate resources according to inherent characteristics such as race and sex. Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago, described how the relentless pursuit of equality of outcome inevitably leads to gulags and genocide. Let's hope the West wakes up to the implications of equity before we get there.

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