Flat White

The other side of rights

10 July 2017

3:44 PM

10 July 2017

3:44 PM

There’s something quite disconcerting about modern society’s preoccupation with rights movements and the Trudeauan, technocratic snobbery that seems to come along with them.

The Left would typically urge caution against this form of individualism by pointing out that it is a tool that can and has been used to divide the working class against itself. It would demand, through its commitment to various forms of collective identity, a certain quantifiable degree of sacrifice from the workers and, in return, a greater share of national wealth in the form of wages and conditions.

Conservative movements would typically urge caution against the excess of statism and on the excess of rights-based liberalism by pointing out that families are the bedrock of society and that the good relationships formed within them create a unit more functional and stable than a society that worships the state or allows social and national identities to be washed away. These societies require effort, patience and negotiation, not government dictate or libertarian atomism.

In reality, liberal principles have done a pretty good job of wounding or killing the political philosophy of tribes across the political spectrum and replacing it with a familiar catch-cry – ‘it’s a basic human right!’

Rights are important, but they really only approximate about half of what is necessary to create functional societies. There are good reasons why institutional, baseless discrimination should be removed. Giving minority people more opportunity to partake in the cultural and political exchange of mainstream society depresses conflict and softens politics. Insofar as politics is essentially a clash of various levels of identity, the more integrated those identities can become the more useful our government and the more likely it will remain that people continue to opt for the ballot box instead of the gun.

But rights, as a concept, are only coherent if referred in respect of something else: responsibilities.

Mainstream democratic societies, through their representatives in government, ought not to extend rights to people simply on their own basis. Rights themselves are actually pretty meaningless unless you attribute a responsibility to them. In order for anything at all to have meaning this must be the case.

The right of marriage, for example, does not simply describe a ceremony at which any two people sign a certificate and endeavour to spend a bit of time together it must also describe the expectation placed on those people to act in accordance with what we imagine marriage to be. Ideally, love forms some part of it, but so does stability, responsibility, sacrifice and respectability. This is a far more complicated idea than merely altering a passage of legislation.


This is, in my view, a big part of what we’re missing when we confront populism in its modern form. Political operatives like to imagine that people silo themselves into various neat categories of thought when considering their vote at the ballot box. This is itself a consequence of liberalism.

Often, political parties develop simple economic messages to target swing voters. Of course economics plays a role but wealth and prosperity has only ever been a cypher for deeper questions about identity. It is true that there are a great many people suffering the consequences of dire economic conditions but people are also angry about the experimentalism of hyper-liberal government and its dislocation from parochial, recognisable and fundamental identities.

Often, criticism of government behaving this way comes to mean criticism of the ideas motivating rights themselves. The reaction against this form of censure comes to describe what happens when people talk about ‘political correctness’ going mad: the motivations of the public are assumed to be base and unsophisticated and the great mass of people are demonised as racists or sexists for standing in the way of true Liberal Progress.

Responsibilities are what make rights worth having, and they animate the gainers of rights to understand and respect the effort taken to get them. This is a necessarily conservative process because if people feel a cultural responsibility for each other they naturally exercise caution when potential hostiles try to gain entry; this idea is roughly sketched out through what we call rule of law.

The idea that you extrapolate these concepts and instantiate them in law requires citizens governed by that law to continue to construct and appreciate both rights and responsibilities. When immigrants move to another country through the exercising of a right, they then accept a responsibility to act in accordance with the law. Were it any other way the purpose of immigration as a right would lose meaning. The immigrant would be moving to a country with no coherent rule of law and the country would sacrifice its philosophy of coherent nationalism.

This is a sort of prosocial reciprocity: a negotiated position arrived at by a tribe of people that manages to create a stable, prosperous society for everyone on the assumption that they limit and moderate their behaviour by conforming to law.

For social democrats who have since become well versed in progressive liberalism, a return to a sort of political language better steeped in responsibilities is self-evident. The runaway power of international corporates and the disproportionate influence of corrupters of capitalism has decimated industries and the communities created around them. People, in general, are market sceptics: the market works, but like societies, markets work when rules are respected. Karl Marx, known for being wrong about many things, was perhaps most wrong when he said that recreation should be maximised at the expense of work.

There are obvious reasons why this was probably true in the nineteenth century when work looked more like serfdom, but in modern societies with democratic access to finance and a greater spread of wealth, work has come to mean a fundamental way to describe a person and their relationship to society. Productive, secure and useful work with decent wages is the bargain we strike with employers.

Employers have rights to not be needlessly encroached upon in their business, but they also have responsibilities to their workers and to the countries in which they conduct their business. They are subsets of democratic nations with rules of law and cultural expectations about fair pay and fair conditions. Businesses that exploit international trade agreements to undercut the wages or offshore work simply to save money break the terms of their responsibilities.

When people struggle to make a living for their families, a sort of existential depression sets in. This depression is often made worse when those people are then forced into social security queues. Overdependence on anyone, much less the state, is unhealthy for human psychology, and the runaway rates of relative inequality as a consequence of stunted wage growth is bad largely because human beings extract meaning out of consequences of their effort, not gifts from the state.

Rights that remove institutional discrimination are important, but equally important are the responsibilities that form the other side of them.

Perhaps this disproportionate focus on rights at responsibility’s expense can in part account for the populist backlash against a selfish corporatism, a bloated paternalistic state and the seemingly enormous cultural gulf that exists between those that elect and those that are elected. There are surely lessons for all politicians in this.

Mitchell Goff is a unionist and member of the Australian Labor Party

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.


Show comments
Close