Our Rights?

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Herman Kuehn

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Our Rights?

By Herman Kuehn.

"I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions,
But really I am neither for nor against institutions,
(What indeed have I in common with them? or what with the destruction of them?)
Only I will establish in the Mannahatta and in every city of these States inland and seaboard,
And in the fields and woods, and above every keel little or large that dents the waters,
Without edifices, or rules or trustees or any argument,
The institution of the dear love of comrades." — Walt Whitman.

When I am asked to write something for a magazine, I am willing to admit that I have no right to refuse. Neither have you any right to refuse to publish anything anyone may send in. Nor do you need any such right. Nor has anyone any more rights in such matters than you or I, though you could multiply all the rights either of us have by one hundred without increasing the quantum, for every multiple of nought refuses to foot up beyond nil. All "Rights" are "Institutional."

People have got into the habit of talking about their rights, and fighting for them, and brooding over the deprivation of them. And of such is the kingdom of misery. They are ghost-worshippers all, and they grieve because this ghost of theirs persists in remaining always fleshless, and it is boneless and sinewless as well. There is nothing to the Doctrine of Rights—unless you choose to class chimerae in the catalogue of living entities.

The concept of Rights is not a positive concept at all. That is to say, no one ever set up the claim of Rights as an original demand. The first invader of his brother's goods did not claim to have a right to them,—he just reached out and took them because of his need or his power. Then the invaded one bethought him of asserting his right to his product—not in the nature of a positive right, but rather by way of proclaiming that the invader had no right to take the stuff. Had the aggressed one stood firm in his denial that any one had any rights over him or his product he would have been on safe ground. But instead of taking the position of safety he straightway sets up the Doctrine of Rights to be immune from invasion. In thuswise he acquiesced in the doctrine of rights, and thereafter he had not only to fight his aggressor by lex talionis, but had likewise to defend his Rights. He doubled his tasks, for in defending his Rights he did not at all lessen the demands on the strength required to fight for the retention of his goods.

Indeed he has been known to go to the length of abandoning the goods altogether in order to fight for his Rights. The doctrine of Rights would never have come to be so potent a superstition if away back in the long ago the invader had not been taught the idea that if he set up the claim of some sort of Rights to invade, the defender would have been "thrice armed." The defender "gave himself away," as it were, when he set up the claim of the Right to be immune from invasion. For we are prone to become sentimentalists on slight provocation, and the defenders became zealous in protecting their rights, even though the invader made off with the goods. Now it is so ordered in this work-a-day world that goods have some tangible uses, while one can neither eat, wear nor consume Rights. So it became a source of amusement to invaders to get hold of the other fellow's goods by "granting" him certain Rights. As a matter of fact we have none of us any rights at all, but such Rights as some of us—most of us—think we have are only such as the invader "granted" us in order to keep us supine while he carted away our provender.

Trace any assertion of Rights back far enough and you will invariably find that it was set up as a sort of defence against the claim of the invader that he had a right to invade. Verily he that taketh up the sword shall perish by the sword. Our fighting the invader's claim, of his right to invade by our counter-claim of immunity from invasion gave strength to the doctrine of rights—gave it in fact all the strength it has to-day.

What shall it profit the Reformers of the world to slay, outvote, dispossess or despitefully use the despots, despoilers and tyrants against whom they are arrayed—and still leave intact the fruitful source of all spoliation—the Doctrine of Rights?

Now, understand me—I am not so modest as to say that there may be Rights and that possibly I am not able to discern them. I am that modest about the conformation of the Moon. If you were to insist that the Moon is made of green cheese I would not dispute with you over the question. It might be so. If you are an expert in such matters I would be inclined to bow to your dictum, as I am too modest to pretend to know. If, however, my acquiescence in that opinion brought distress and misery upon me, I should not be so modest as to concede your correctness. At any rate I would be justified in demanding your proof.

No, I am not modest in this matter. Instead of admitting that there may be validity in the Doctrine of Rights, I take the position that the concept is the refinement of absurdity. The doctrine of Rights does not square with any hypothesis of life. its proponents have never undertaken to make it square with common sense, whatever their claim or basis for their particular brand of common sense. Do you know or any one who has undertaken to prove the doctrine of Rights: Yes, yes, I know that "it has been accepted" as a self-evident truth. You want to be careful about those self-evident truths, or first thing you know some fellow will win your money on a bet that the rails of a street-car line converge just beyond the next rise. That illusion is also "self-evident" to the unwary.

Take the materialistic or the deistic hypothesis of the universe, and in neither of these is there a basis for the doctrine of rights, the materialist will have to admit early in the discussion that there can be no doctrine of Rights except such as are based on convention. Certainly the materialist is estopped from proclaiming Natural Rights. The advocate of the deistic hypothesis is in no better case. God is All and in All, he will tell you. No matter how we define the word "God"—to this complexion must we come at last, that All embraces nothing short of the Whole Thing. Can we have any rights against the whole thing? It is as though the cog claimed rights against the wheel of which it is a part. And if the cog have no rights against the wheel what rights has it? For the wheel is all the universe the cog cognizes. (I ought to be able to get at least a fi'pun note for that'un.) But the burden of proof is not upon one who denies the existence of a thing. Let those who assert the existence of rights bring some evidence of such existence. It is not for me to disprove that ghosts always make their earthly visits at 11:58 p. m. Let's hear from some one who has timed 'em.

When a man says that he has a right to his product, what he really means is that no other person has a right to deprive him of it.

The proponents of the doctrine of Rights will admit this to be true, and then they go on to say that "it's all the same thing." But it isn't all the same thing, but quite another thing, just as black is not at all the same thing as white. It would indeed "amount to the same thing" despite the vast difference that in reality exists, if the consequences were not so important. I shall not dwell upon this importance at present.

The right to the enjoyment of our product is an unimportant conception until we set up the claim against the invader, and when it becomes important—in such an event—it is no longer really a claim to a Right to our product but a claim to be NOT invaded. Instead of saying to the invader, "No one has a right to take my goods," he says, "I have a right to keep my goods." He meets the claim of a right—he meets an absurd claim, with one equally absurd—and thus the silly canceling contest progresses ever—so long as we remain in the superstition of Rights.

"My dear sir," one advocate of the doctrine of Rights said to me the other day,—"My dear sir; we don't have to prove that Natural Rights exist. Why, it's self-evident. Can any American with a drop of patriotic blood in his veins believe that the Declaration of Independence contains an absurdity in declaring that all men have certain inalienable rights among which are the rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness?"

Well, it is a bit harsh, I'll admit, to indict the brave old Colonial insurgents of absurdity, but why mince matters? And they themselves found it expedient to shoulder their fowling pieces and buckle on their sabres—relying more on such paraphernalia than on the assertion of "inalienable" rights. Mere Rhetoric, is all there is to that part of the declaration of American independence—sounding brass and tinkling cymbals, signifying nothing.

The Right to Life. Where do we see any evidences of such right? Assuming that "Nature" grants Life, Nature, too, assumes to deprive us of it. Where is the Right? And of what use to proclaim something for which no man has been able to find any foundation—when the thing we really mean when we assert the right to live is to deny that any person has a right to abridge life.

The Right to Liberty. Why the very assertion of such a Right is a denial of Liberty. Liberty is. It cannot be granted, though it may be restored, though that is merely a figure of speech. For to restore liberty is simply to quit abridging it. If my liberty depend on the grace or caprice of another it is not liberty at all. Yet what do we mean when we say that we have a right to liberty? We really mean that no one has a right to abridge it.

The right to the pursuit of happiness. The very statement implies that we require a still greater liberty in the matter of happiness: the right to define what our happiness is to consist of. Is this a Natural Right? If so, can any one wrest from Nature the secret of it, for it has not yet been made public—this right of each of us to determine what his happiness consists of, or what he thinks it consists of. Shall I ask any one—any power—to grant me the right to think what it is that I believe will make me happy? No, what we really mean by asserting our Right to pursue our happiness is that no one has a Right to interfere with our pursuit of happiness, or to decide for us in what our happiness shall consist.

Nature, let me say, gives us life. Nature gives us also the instinct to preserve life. Nature gives no one a Rie;ht to take life. Now, what need then i's there for a Right to Life? Certainly we have no use for such a Ric:ht against Nature itself. For Nature, without asserting any right at all terminates life—"it gathers the bearded grain at a breath, and the flowers that grow between."

Of what use were the Right to Life—if such a thing could be? For if the invader cut short my life, what use will the surviving Right be to me?

Recently a man in Chicago repeated a time-honored assertion of his rights by shooting the man who won his sweetheart's affection. The girl had been his sweetheart, and that gave him a right to her—so his act implies. And so many men believe. Many a woman, who enjoyed the utmost possibility of happiness, has thrown her happiness to the winds by assertion, by word or attitude, that she had a right to her husband's or her lover's love.

In the field of economics we can-see—if we are not ourselves blinded by the superstition of Rights, how that doctrine befogs clear thought, and makes us victims of the exploiter. At least I see it. Don't you?

(More about "Rights" in the March number).