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There has been, in some sections of society, a backlash against the “Liberal” idea of rights. Pointing to the moral decay of the times, some conservatives argue that the notion of rights without duties is fundamentally responsible for the proliferation of insouciance, selfishness, and entitlement that we see. Furthermore, they bemoan the encroachment of the law into arenas they feel should be left within the purview of traditional institutions such as the family, religious organisation, or the social web. The root of this malady of the times, conservatives argue, is the cult of individualism. Placing the individual above all else – family, clan, tribe, community – tears the moral fabric of (traditional) society.

The confusion over what rights entail is the result of much Leftist loose talk. The rush by every imaginable group to claim rights (and sometimes victimhood) for themselves has only caused much confusion about this issue. Rights are claimed on behalf of everything from the state to one’s one pet idiosyncrasies – state’s rights, individual rights, human rights, animal rights, gay rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, the right to life, the right to education, the right to self-defence, the right to health, the right to free expression, the right to privacy, the right to legal redress… the list is endless. To make any sense of all this, it is necessary to elucidate the different kinds of rights, whence they are derived, and how they stand with respect to each other.

Immanuel Kant, perhaps the most important modern philosopher, sets the groundwork for a theory of rights in his famous Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten. According to Kant, there is only one innate right, and that is the right to freedom. This right is not an a priori position, but is in fact based on the observation that every person is born with free will. This Will may, in due course, be bound by obligations and influenced by peripheral factors, but a person may choose to, has the freedom to, disregard his or her obligations and other desires. This freedom of Will is important because, without it, there can be no morality – how is one responsible for, in Kant’s example, theft, if one has no choice to commit or desist from it?

As Kant further explained, a right does not indicate any relation between one’s action and another’s desire; thus, acts of kindness or benevolence (or their inverse) may be morally desirable (or not) but cannot be coercively extracted from or prohibited to an individual. “Equity (aequitas),” Kant says, “does not properly constitute a claim upon the moral duty of benevolence or beneficence on the part of others.” However, it must be remembered that the focus of this understanding of equality and rights is the individual, not the state.

In Kant’s worldview, the state is a web of juridical rights; in that sense, legislated rights are purely relational and thus below innate rights. A person’s claim to some property would, theoretically, deny the freedom of others to claim the same property. Therefore, rights over the property in question are agreed upon through a civil legislative system. Property rights are thus considered acquired rights and not innate rights as freedom is. While both are relational – it makes no sense to claim freedom if you are the only person around – the innate right of freedom derives from an intrinsic quality of the person whereas acquired property rights are derived from the state’s power to ratify economic transactions.

A third category of “right” is constituted by what might be better understood as privilege. This is a right that is extended to a person but need not be. For example, one would be allowed into Via di Santa Susanna while one is an employee of the Agenzia Informazioni e Sicurezza Esterna (AISE) but not after terminating employment. Or on a more informal level, I might allow you to borrow one of my books, but that does not imply your right to my books.

Now, let us turn to India, for it makes an interesting case study for welfare rights. The ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has instituted schemes and is investigating others that would extend a broad umbrella of welfare rights over India’s teeming millions. This welfare umbrella constitutes the alleged rights to food, education, health, and employment, coming at a cost that is bound to cripple the economy. How are we to understand this new system of handouts?

To begin with, we observe that Kant would have advocated these schemes, if not between individuals (duty cannot be legislated), then certainly between the state and the individual. Yet the matter is not so simple; Kant lived in an era of monarchies when the King was supposed to be a paternal figure, taking care of the needy in his kingdom. His Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten was published in 1785, four years before the French Revolution. Europe’s monarchies, though they had evolved with the continent’s turbulence, remained a mai-baap raj when Kant wrote that the state had a right to tax its more affluent subjects (can we really speak of citizens then?) to provide for the less fortunate ones. The new economy of world capitalism had yet to transfigure the world, transferring power out of the hands of kings and emperors and into the hands of traders, merchants, and bankers. Yet Kant also warns that “the principle of happiness…has ill effects in political right just as in morality, however good the intentions of those who teach it,” and reminds us that “if the supreme power makes laws which are primarily directed towards happiness, this cannot be regarded as the end for which a civil constitution was established.”

Any redistributive scheme appropriates funds from the more affluent to provide services for the less affluent with the state as the intermediary. This redistribution, labelled by populist politicians as a right, is not based on any commensurate exchange but is marketed as a public measure of goodness of those advocating such policies. The notion that the state is a contract between similar-minded people to govern cannot be given infinite latitude as, by that logic, that tyranny of the majority can easily be channelled towards expropriation of wealth from the affluent, subjugation of undesirables, and worse, elimination of the unprotected. As we see from this example, that a state has the power to act in a certain way or even that the right to act in a given manner has been granted it by the people does not make in itself make an action moral. State action in such a case is proof of might, not right.

For John Stuart Mill, labour was the basis of property. Since, money has become the universal instrument of commerce. Welfare schemes deal in the transfer of goods and services but involve no bilateral transaction of value. At best, this can be termed charity, and at worst, theft. Yet there is no choice in participating in this charity; the state taxes its citizens and redistributes the monies as it sees fit, based upon criteria it has drawn up. Such an exchange – let us generously call it charity – falls within the moral realm and not a juridical one. Kant argues that though charity is a noble act and perhaps even moral (according to his three formulations of the categorical imperative), it should not be upheld as a universal principle. As Kant explains,

For a will that resolved in this way would contradict itself, inasmuch as cases might often arise in which one would have need of the love and sympathy of others and in which he would deprive himself, by such a law of nature springing from his own will, of all hope of the aid he wants for himself.

WN Hohfeld, the famous American jurist, posited that every kind of right creates a corresponding obligation on someone else. For example, my claim to a piece of land creates an obligation on everyone else’s part of non-interference in that property. My liberty to build a house on the land or cultivate a large vegetable garden creates a corresponding absence of inconsistent claims from others. If I hire someone to work my garden, I have an authority right over my employee, and in some countries, agricultural income is tax-free and my income from the garden has immunity from the income tax collector. In the case of welfare, a moral claim, there ought to be a corresponding moral duty. What is this duty upon the recipient of the society’s largesse? This is an oft-unanswered question in government welfare schemes. On a side note, while all have heard of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Indian constitution, how many have heard of the fundamental duties?

Let a critique of the loose language of rights not be mistaken for a lack of empathy. It is natural for humans to feel for others in dire straits – the old schoolteacher on the verge of being evicted from his rented apartment, the maidservant who can’t afford the medical bills of her crippled young daughter, a war veteran reduced to begging in his later years. Few would argue over subsistence allowances from the state to such chronic cases. However, locating such cases, monitoring them, and disbursing assistance to them enlarges the role of the state (and consequently the bureaucracy) in private affairs. What would perhaps serve society better is encouragement of private philanthropy and employer pension plans indexed to inflation. Furthermore, the (Indian) state can instead focus on job growth by unshackling the manufacturing industry and encouraging trades and crafts in local communities. Education loans and scholarships could be made available for only the economically disadvantaged who are capable. Microlending should be introduced to provide initial support to local entrepreneurs. All these tiny measures and more will build on local skills and answer local needs better than any centralised bureaucracy rife with corrupt officials ever can.

The development of trades will enhance cottage industries and hopefully raise families to subsistence levels, while industrial jobs in manufacturing will provide additional jobs. Such “welfare” schemes will help individuals and communities stand on their own feet far more easily than making them dependent on regular handouts. Furthermore, it will boost local economies and contribute to general national growth rather than sap the nation’s economic health as the UPA’s schemes have done so far. The argument against the Left’s irresponsible, parasitic, and destabilising welfare plans is not an abolishment of welfare but a large shift to “productive welfare.” This shift cannot be complete as there will inevitably be those who are genuinely disabled by age and/or illness, but it will get a vast majority of people off the dole. Most importantly, it is essential to challenge the loose talk that welfare is a right (particularly one without a corresponding duty) – it is a privilege, and hopefully a temporary one.