2003 March 08 Saturday
Individual Rights The Highest Value Of All People?

Brink Lindsey ponders the political significance of people who do not want to be reasonable and who do not value individual rights.

Although a regime of legal protection of individual rights is one of the greatest achievements of civilization, and the surest basis of most of the rest, nonetheless it is not a project that can be pursued with unswerving consistency -- at least not with results that would be broadly acceptable. More basically, the project of securing individual rights cannot even be launched without a political decision to embrace certain values at the expense of others. Rights theorists argue that rights ultimately can be justified as compelled by reason, and I have a good deal of sympathy with that argument. But such an argument, even if successful, still leaves unanswered a fundamental question: Why be reasonable? Why value a system based on reason over one based on other human values or needs? Clearly there are alternatives: People have been unreasonable throughout most of history. A Wahhabi imam believes unbending adherence to the Sharia makes for the ideal social order, and reason isn’t going to convince him otherwise. Indeed, he believes that unbridled reason is an evil to be combated. Ultimately, then, the case for liberty is an assertion of values: A society in which liberty is the primary political value is a better society than the alternatives -- both because liberty is intrinsically valuable and because it is a potent instrument of our other values.

There are many societies where liberty is not the primary political value. In fact, there are probably more societies where liberty is not the primary political value than there are societies where it is the primary political value.

Many libertarians believe that governments are the biggest obstacle in the way of a greater respect for individual rights. This only begs the question of why even in democracies do governments so often show a willingness to place other concerns above the protection of individual rights. The most important reason is that most people do not value individual rights as highly as the most doctrinaire libertarians claim to. Of course, one can ask people whether they place a high value on individual rights and at least in the United States most will claim that individual rights are very important to them. But many vote as if other desires (e.g. for funding of health care, retirement, education, farm subsidies, etc) are more important.

Even when it comes to protecting individual rights there are widely differing interpretations as to what are the greatest threats to rights and what the government should or should not do about them. Some people are more afraid of having their rights violated by criminals than by the government and hence want the government to have more power to compel testimony, get wiretap and search warrants and to have other powers to stop criminals. Other people think the government is the greater threat and hence want the government to have less power to use to prevent crimes or to discover the perpetrators of crimes. Still others think the economy is inherently unfair and want the government to use taxes to play Robin Hood robbing from the rich to give to everyone else.

Brink Lindsey argues for a pragmatic libertarianism in which libertarians recognise that not all people have the same values as they do. This recognition, if used in libertarian considerations of all political questions, would make libertarianism less ideological and more empirical.

Any ideology is essentially a set of simplifying assumptions about human nature and reality. Compare libertarianism to communism. Communism is an ideology which suffers from at least 2 major false assumptions. First, it assumes that the vast bulk of humanity can be molded into being so incredibly altruistic ("New Soviet Man") that property will no longer be necessary. Also, in its bureaucratic form communism assumes that planners can be both smart enough and knowledgeable enough to make decisions with sufficient wisdom to allow them to manage an economy down to the lowest level. These assumptions caused communist states to continually try to do the impossible and they failed.

Ideological libertarians also make assumptions about human nature that are false. Utopian libertarianism suffers from the false assumption that people can be convinced to be rational enough and fair enough to each other that they will support a system in which protection of individual rights is the sole value for deciding the nature of governments. Some libertarians even go as far as the most idealistic communists by dreaming of a whithering away of the state entirely (see the science fiction of L. Neil Smith for example). As an ideology libertarianism suffers from the same kinds of flaws that communism suffers from: it assumes humans possess a nature that they do not possess in reality.

People in different countries on average embrace different beliefs. For instance, extent of religiosity varies considerably around the world. Also, different parts of the world on average differ in the kinds of values they embrace.

As Lindsey points out, there are people who for religious reasons are deeply hostile to Western conceptions of liberty. For example, in Britain Muslim Sheik Abdullah el-Faisal has been found guilty of preaching hatred and encouraging the murder of unbelievers.

El-Faisal received seven years for soliciting murder, 12 months to run concurrently for using threatening and insulting words and a further two years - to run consecutively - for using threatening and insulting recordings.

During the trial el-Faisal argued that his words were taken from the Koran, the Muslim holy book, and that he had been misrepresented.

Can someone be doing something wrong if they are just preaching the beliefs of their religion? Keep in mind when you answer that question to yourself that there are hundreds of millions and perhaps even billions of people who will answer that question differently because they have different beliefs and values. Also, even in the case of two societies which both accept that there are some religious beliefs that are so wrong that their teaching should be outlawed that the two societies may have conflicting views about which religious beliefs should be illegal. What el-Faisal taught in Britain would not get him jailed in Saudi Arabia while in Saudi Arabia it is illegal to preach any part of any non-Muslim religion.

El-Faisal doesn't think the individual liberty or even the existence of non-Muslims should be respected.

Another jihad tape contains the words: "So you go to India and if you see a Hindu walking down the road you are allowed to kill him and take his money, is that clear?"

El-Faisal does not hold individual liberty as his highest value. What he has learned from Islam causes him to view individual liberty as in conflict with values that he holds to be more important.

An extremist Islamic group thinks non-Muslims do not have a right to judge Muslims.

Shiekh Omar Bakri Mohammed, the leader of Al-Muhajiroun, an extremist Muslim group, said: “The judge was not a Muslim, the jury were not Muslims and I see this sentence as part of a crusade against the Muslim faith.

“The Koran was on trial. El-Faisal is being penalised for speaking the truth; he was not speaking his own words, but those of the Koran. He would not have been treated this way if we were not in such an Islamophobic climate.”

Is this guy just a lone nut? No. Throughout Britain there is a market demand for Islamic material that encourages hatred of non-Muslims.

El-Faisal, 39, a former supporter of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, made a series of tapes — with names such as "Jihad" and "No Peace With Jews" — that were distributed throughout Britain for sale in Islamic book shops.

While el-Faisal was also prosecuted under more a recent British hate crimes law the solicitation of murder charge relied on an old unusual and rarely used British law.

Abdullah el Faisal, a Jamaican native born 39 years ago as William Forest, was the first person in more than a century to be charged under Britain's Offenses Against the Person Act of soliciting without a specific victim -- a law dating back to 1861.

This prosecution probably couldn't have happened in the United States. The US doesn't have a hate crimes law that outlaws insults and the hurting of feelings or the encouragement of hatred. Such a law probably wouldn't pass constitional muster due to conflicts with Bill of Rights guarantees of freedom of speech and religion. Also, the charge for solicitation of murder relied on an old and rarely used British law that may not have an American equivalent. Does anyone know whether such a non-specific solicitation to murder can be treated as a crime under American law?

This prosecution underscores the problem that the United States faces in dealing with religious belief systems that are hostile to the values that form the basis for American governance. How can someone be prosecuted essentially for promoting values that conflict with the values that form the basis for American law and governance?

Just who lives in a society and what they believe have a great deal of influence on the laws and customs of a society. This is true even in non-democratic societies.

Omer Taspinar says demographic trends in Europe will translate into increasing political clout for the growing European Muslim population.

More are on the way. Today, the Muslim birth rate in Europe is three times higher than the non-Muslim one. If current trends continue, the Muslim population of Europe will nearly double by 2015, while the non-Muslim population will shrink by 3.5 percent.

A parallel process of Muslim enfranchisement is accompanying this population surge. Nearly half of the 5 million to 7 million Muslims in France are already French citizens. The situation is similar for most of the 2 million Muslims in Great Britain. Most recently, in 2000, Germany joined the countries where citizenship is granted according to birthplace instead of ancestry. The new German citizenship laws added already a half million voters to the rolls and have opened the road to citizenship to all other Muslims in Germany. With currently 160,000 new Muslim citizens a year, the number of voters might total 3 million in the next decade.

It is inevitable that the nature of European governments and society will change in a direction that places a lower value on liberty and reason if, as seems likely, the growing Muslim population in Europe find less value in liberty or in reason than does the pre-existing native population.

Ideological libertarians favor the complete free movement of people across national borders. They view restrictions on movement as violations of rights. But the biggest libertarian challenge in politics is to create or preserve a polity that believes protecting individual rights to be the primary value in the first place.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 March 08 11:13 PM  Immigration Culture Clash

John Moore (Useful Fools) said at March 9, 2003 3:15 PM:


I started composing a reply to this but it got too long and drifted a bit off topic. It is now a fairly major essay on my views about privacy in the Age of Terror.

I know it will be very controversial. I also consider it an important viewpoint that needs debating.

Please give it a read at here. If you think it is worth discussion, also please give a link to it.



whatever said at November 11, 2003 3:32 PM:

i think you have no right to talk about muslims or judge them. if you're trying to prove muslims are bad you are dead wrong, muslims are non of your concern got it.

Eric E. Coe said at January 4, 2004 3:11 PM:

"whatever" idiot: Muslims have judged themselves, by their own actions. Their actions are all the proof I need. Someone who has declared themselves the enemy of me and mine, who openly proclaims that I deserve no consideration, that I can be robbed, mistreated, opressed and killed; because I am an "infidel" - then what can my response be? To "understand" them? We understand them all too well.

Take your pathetic defeatism somewhere else.

mahvi said at April 26, 2004 8:48 AM:

hope the world gets its lost place that it had once... peace. well, the religion ISLAM and the muslims are not mant to harm anyone, this is wat is specified IN HOLY QURAN. but even if someone does he will be asked on the day of JUDGEMENT. infact everyone will be asked for its good and bad deeds. infact MUSLIMS are given permission to do JIHAD if the msulims are made to surfer, which is totally different from TERRORISM. today most people think that JIHAD IS SAME AS TERRORISM which is wrong.

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