Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hendrick Hertzberg's hierarchy of rights, cont.

In a prior post, I raised some questions about Hendrick Hertzberg's assertion that he values "political liberty and political rights" more than "economic liberty and economic rights." Hertzberg has done me the honor of a response:
One more point. Andrew Sprung also says that because, in his view, “no real freedom of thought is possible without basic property rights,” he doesn’t see much meaning in my saying that I value liberty of thought, belief, and speech more highly than I value property rights (or, for that matter, the right to vote). Again, he may be correct that, as a matter of historical evolution, “basic property rights” are previous to freedom of thought, etc. But does that make them more valuable?
That closing question clarifies for me what has disturbed me about Hertzberg's hierarchy of values as asserted throughout this discussion thread, particularly in his response to a Daily Dish reader who rather dogmatically asserted the historical priority of property rights over 'the right to vote.' It's this: what is more valuable really can't be divorced from what depends on what, or from the historical evolution of our various freedoms. Freedom of thought, conscience and speech don't exist in a vacuum. They are, I think, unimaginable without property rights. The historical evolution* of the rights we treasure matters too, insofar as it provides clues to their interdependence. 

Unless, that is, by "property rights" you mean mainly the "right" not to be taxed heavily.  I suspect that this is where Hertzberg is really coming from, since he began the thread in dialogue with a Texas conservative who opposed his own credo to Hertzberg's, asserting,  "We want government to encourage equal opportunity, but we don’t want it to enforce equality by redistributing wealth."

If  "property rights" as defined by American conservatives is Hertzberg's target, I agree with him.  While very high and very progressive taxes may defertilize the golden goose of enterprise. I too value freedom of thought and speech and conscience far beyond the "right" not to be taxed at Swedish rates. The emotional core of Hertzberg's meditation may be reaction to the American right's hysterical claims that the Obama administration's modest expansion of the social safety net is a mortal assault on vital American freedoms.

But in the credo he lifted from his recent "little book," Obamanos, Hertzberg defines property rights more expansively:
I value political liberty and political rights (freedom of thought, speech, conscience, and the press, the right to vote, civil equality) more highly than economic liberty and economic rights (property rights, freedom of enterprise, freedom from want, economic equality). I’m in favor of progressive taxation and generous public provision of education, pensions, and health care. I think people should have enough to eat and a roof over their heads, even if they haven’t done much to deserve it. I reject the idea that the market is the singular bedrock of society while everything else is a parasitical growth
In fact, by including "freedom from want" and "economic equality" as economic freedoms, Hertzberg flips the terms of the liberal-conservative contrast he's sketching (those who primarily value political rights vs. those who place priority on property rights). Here, again, I don't think that valuing one set "more" than the other makes sense -- unless you think that overvaluing the property rights of those who have lots of property tends toward impinging on political rights. I actually do believe that -- witness the modern history of the Republican party, which at bottom stands for nothing but letting the rich and powerful write all the rules and arrogate to themselves an ever-larger share of the national wealth-- a mindset that's also proved congenial to abrogating the rights of the accused and hollowing out core freedoms such as habeas corpus, which fall in neither (or both) of Hertzberg's categories. So in a way, again, I agree with Hertzberg -- but only if you define "property rights"  in the warped mode of American conservatives. "Property rights," indeed, turns out to be a rather slippery concept, since none of us accumulates wealth in a vacuum, and only an idiot in the Greek sense -- one who lives entirely in isolation -- would be in favor of no taxation.

 * I was not entirely satisfied with my original post, mainly because, when I came to consider the interdependence and historic development of freedom of thought, democracy, and property rights, I ran up against the thinness of my historical knowledge. I have read assertions, some if not all of them ideologically tinged, that "political freedoms" as developed in England and America were built on a foundation of slowly evolved property rights, but I can't really assess these claims or trace the evolution or tell you the degree to which the monarchies and aristocracies of Europe at different points were empowered to confiscate property  or the degree to which they saw fit to censor published writings, theatrical performances, etc..

UPDATE: On further mulling, Hertzberg's credo strikes me as a strange hybrid. On the one hand, the fact that under "economic rights" he included two left-leaning goals (freedom from want, economic equality) as well as two right-leaning ones suggests that the superior value he accords "political rights" over economic ones is a pure play: freedom of thought, etc. are simply intrinsically more valuable than property rights. On the other hand, there's a push-pull between the rival credos in his original post between the differing economic agendas of the left and right: Hertzberg prefers one set of economic priorities -- obviously, the left-leaning ones in his list.

The Dish reader blended Hertzberg's two agendas, arguing that the right-leaning property rights are historically prior to "voting rights" (which Hertzberg's original post grouped with freedom of thought and speech under "political rights") and also more important to our happiness in the U.S. today, where (he argued) voting rights don't count for much (I disagree, but that's beside the point). In response, Hertzberg shifted the ground from assessing the value of voting rights to freedom of thought and speech  -- and also argued in effect that historical priority doesn't matter. Again, I think it does matter -- or more to the point, I think that the interdependence of rights matters, and perhaps renders moot the question of which set of rights you value more.

1 comment:

  1. I recall reading (from Hitchens, perhaps?) about a North Korean resident sent to the Manchurian gulag for idly speculating, in the public square, that it might not be a bad thing for North Korea to be more like Japan.

    In this example, a hierarchy of separable rights at least can be discussed, we can imagine a society (China, perhaps?) where the right to speculate publicly about the country's cultural structure exists without concomitant voting rights. Indeed, China allows 'some' property rights without the extensive variants we cherish in the West.

    For me, it is helpful to think of the hierarchy of rights in relation to similar hierarchies, e.g. Maslow's hierarchy of needs. In the Maslow hierarchy, there's quite a bit of consolation in having one's basic needs met (the lower part of the hierarchy), even when higher-order needs like meaning or spiritual development remain neglected. With rights, though, I suspect that most folks would find cold comfort in the right to speculate in the public square if not accompanied by property/voting rights, etc.

    I guess I disagree with the assertion that freedom of thought is "unimaginable without property rights". One can imagine that poor soul in North Korea 'getting away with' his pro-Japan speculation without also possessing property rights. Indeed, that individual was free to possess such a thought up until the moment when he erred in blurting it out.

    However, while the distinction between 'freedom of thought' and 'property rights' can, and probably does, exist, I suspect that most would agree that the distinction isn't worth much (unlike lower/higher distinctions in other hierarchies, e.g. Maslow's).