Sunday, September 7, 2014

Natural Rights in Europe and America: Shoring-Up Each Other’s Weak Spots

The Declaration of Independence made by the thirteen newly sovereign American states in 1776 recognizes “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These rights are not dependent on any government, and thus exist equally so in the state of nature. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, made in Europe thirteen years later, omits any mention of a creator-deity. “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” The equality here is more limited, being solely in terms of rights, “man’s natural and imprescriptible rights” in particular. These “are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.” We can thus compare and contrast the two sets of rights, which important implications for public policy for both America and Europe.

Liberty is shared by both declarations; the value placed on freedom was likely salient in the last quarter of the eighteenth century at least. Liberty represented the emerging paradigm of popular sovereignty as against monarchy and the associated divine right of kings. Interesting, the American Declaration pivots the divine source over to liberty, whereas the European Declaration implies a basis in Nature. Basing a new paradigm on the basis of the prevailing one has the advantage of the transference of legitimacy, while bypassing the old foundation may be likened to kicking the chair out from under the reigning paradigm, hence weakening any potential resurgence. So, both documents had a valid strategy.

In terms of “ever closer union” pertaining to the E.U. and U.S., we might try combining the other salient rights to get a sense of a more holistic, or balanced, basis to government. John Locke would no doubt be very pleased. To liberty, we can add life, property, security, resistance to oppression, and the pursuit of happiness. I have ordered these rights along the lines of Maslow’s hierarchy of self-actualization—physiological sustenance and physical security being the most fundamental, and happiness residing at the top. The right to security implies life, but the latter does not include the former.

Hence we find a more complete safety net in the E.U. than in the U.S. The ideological belief that a person must work in order to survive, a vestige of the proverbial state of nature although without the greater specialization making people more dependent on each other, has more currency among Americans than Europeans, generally speaking. A balanced approach to public governance would include the right to life buttressed by the right to security. That is to say, more could be done in the U.S. with respect to ensuring basic shelter, medical care, and food to the people in most need such that they need not live in fear from day to day.

Furthermore, the right to resist oppression can be coupled with the right to pursue happiness, for the oppressed are rarely very happy. Striking workers in the 1930s in America felt the weak spot in the American variant of rights as companies hired Pinkerton cops to beat the strikers as local police looked on or even participated. Europeans weighed down by onerous regulations would benefit in terms of quality of life were happiness a more explicit factor used by regulators.

In any culture, some rights are valued more than others; valuing itself involves prioritizing. Accordingly, governments tend to have distinctive weak spots. Political development can be facilitated, I submit, by comparing different though related sets of values in order to detect and strengthen areas that potentially could undercut the system of public governance itself. That is to say, Europeans and Americans can learn from each other and both come out with stronger systems of governance.