The 1972 Libertarian Party Statement of Principles is far and away the best such presentation anywhere today. But the clearer we make it the less chance there is for regrettable misinterpretation. The fallacy of equivocation is the assignment of different meanings to a term, usually by accident or oversight. The word in question, however, is the noun form of “right” or “rights” the thing we seek to defend. Here is the correct usage, in which a right is an ethical claim to freedom of action:
We hold that each individual has the right to exercise sole dominion over his own life, and has the right to live his life in whatever manner he chooses, so long as he does not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live their lives in whatever manner they choose.
Compare that with Thomas Jefferson’s phrasing:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed
Jefferson makes a clear distinction between rights and powers. Here is an LP rendering Jefferson could improve by editing:
Governments throughout history have regularly operated on the opposite principle, that the State has the right to dispose of the lives of individuals and the fruits of their labor. Even within the United States, all political parties other than our own grant to government the right to regulate the life of the individual and seize the fruits of his labor without his consent.
Clearly, this version of a “right” is at best a legitimized power or a deontological arrogation of coercive privilege, and conservatives, fascists, socialists and communists delight in misattributing those meanings to “rights,” just as gleefully as they blur the distinctions between freedom and coercion.
A right is a moral claim to freedom of action was drummed into our UTEXAS Ethics classes by tenured Prof Tara Smith, who dared us to refute it. The definition is consistent with most of our criminal code, Constitution and Declaration. If a right is a claim to freedom (absence of coercion) it can hardly be retasked into a political provision for the execution of convicts, belligerent criminals or enemy combatants, all of which mean the exercise of political power. Even in classical terms, political power in social sciences is the capacity to see to the physical restraint of men, hopefully men who have abdicated their claim to freedom by aggressing against others.
By analogy with freshman physics, where force times distance is work, and the rate at which work is done is power, political power is the same, with the caveat that since the exercise of physical restraint typically involves harmful and often deadly force, the rate at which that sort of work can be done is people incapacitated/killed per unit of time. Look at comparisons of military force and they are measured and expressed in those terms. So if we want to keep clear the distinction between the exercise of individual rights and exercise of the physical restraint States are tasked with using to secure those rights, we ought to resist blurring the distinction.
On the practical side, the change ought not to cost us any votes. I expect that the added clarity will better attract the support of anyone we could ever hope to attract. Even if the suggestion undergoes defenestration, I would then turn to attempting to replace the equivocated “right” with “legal standing”, “authorized authority” or some other, more appropriate construction. Even the “right” to kill in self defense is only a sloppy expression of the special, often regrettable, unintended and unfortunate case of the freedom or right to act in self defense in situations so fluid and dangerous that a jury might agree that the fatal outcome could be justified in a court of law or court-martial. Nicholas Sarwark is more qualified to expound on that collocation.
Suppose the original idea was to deliberately misuse “right” as a venomous barb on what amounts to a criticism of (imputed) wrongs we hope to right. Then I beg leave to suggest the barb was way too subtle for the opening statements intended to enlist support for us. As a joke it does not translate well. Right this minute there are 20 other countries looking to us as exemplars for the drafting of platforms for advancement of rights and minimization of coercion—even if less than instantaneous. Examining just a few of the “constitutions” those people have to work under makes one appreciate the advantage of a Constitution smaller than 8000 words.
This language is in the original platform, which I cherish and defend, yet would not hesitate to rescue from error. I have always admired Hospers and Nolan and would argue the same point to them. This is something no later platform committee can be blamed for, yet its importance is so fundamental (especially when you contemplate expressing it in other languages), that I feel obligated to advance this suggestion. I of course welcome the most vigorous attacks on its supporting logic and rhetorical usefulness.
I move that the expression be reexamined and incorrect iterations of the word “right” be replaced with “political power” something more appropriate for the description of even the most salutary government coercion. If that motion fails, I would move that the incorrect specimens be placed in quotes.
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