Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Proper Hitchens on the difference between conservative liberty and left-wing liberty

The problem with these declarations [i.e. such as the French "Declaration of the Rights of Man"], with their 'rights' to private life and their 'rights' to a fair trial and their 'rights' to everything else is that it all depends what you mean by private, and fair, and so forth. And what if these 'rights' come into conflict with each other? Who decides which is supreme? ...


"Bentham praised the traditional reluctance of the English Parliament to enact abstract propositions. Everyone in Europe agreed that in England was a free country; that there was, for example, freedom of speech although there was no law which expressly said so. To say that we enjoyed freedom of speech was a descriptive general-isation of particular English laws which limited the circumstances in which publications were actionable or the government could suppress them. It was these specific laws which gave people their rights.

It is in England, rather than in France, said Bentham, that the discovery of the rights of man ought naturally to have taken its rise: it is we - we English, that have the better right to it ... Our right to this precious discovery, such as it is, of the rights of man, must, I repeat it, have been prior to that of the French. It has been seen how peculiarly rich we are in materials for making it. Right, the substantive right, is the child of law: from real laws come real rights; but from imaginary laws, from laws of nature, fancied and invented by poets, rhetoricians, and dealers in moral and intellectual poisons, come imaginary rights."

Well, I agree completely with that. But Lord Hoffmann doesn't. He thinks these gas-filled documents are valuable because they "provide a standard for political criticism of institutions and officials". His only objection, as it emerges later, is to the abuse of such documents by foreign judges. He thinks the English courts, staffed by nice liberals like his good self, should have the exclusive right to rule on 'human rights'.

But why should such documents provide a standard? Who says that these ideas are right? How do we know what they mean anyway? Who decides what they mean when we disagree? This is why I described them as "atheistical." They are an attempt to replace the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes as the main texts by which right and wrong should be judged. And they raise the point, so tirelessly made by Theists such as me, that unless you have a set of founding rules which are universally believed to be divinely ordained, and which cannot be tampered with by governments, you have no reliable basis for deciding between right and wrong.

Despite this flaw, "Human Rights" have in effect become a replacement for religion. Why is that? I think it is because their supporters see that the problem of deciding what they mean will give them power. The elite increases its power by keeping the right to interpret and enforce these vague laws. It becomes the replacement for God, which is what it has always wanted to be.

Just look at the bizarre constructions placed even on the relatively clear bits of the US Bill of Rights by the American Supreme Court, which manufactured an abortion right out of nothing, drove prayer out of the schools on spurious grounds and for a while abolished the death penalty on an equally feeble pretext, then decided the penalty was all right after all. It is really hard to see how the same document can be read to say that execution is right one year, and wrong the next. It's clear that the real power comes not from the document, but from the court - and of course from those who appoint it.


That is why left-wing rights increase the power of the state. Conservative rights, as expressed in the hard, cool, terse language of the 1689 Bill of Rights, and its Scottish Equivalent the Claim of Right, and in the grand simplicity of the 1628 Petition of Right, concentrate on saying quite clearly what government cannot do. And in the space that is left, when the ruler is restrained by such things, free men can live, write, speak and think.

Peter Hitchens, "Conservative liberty and left-wing liberty"