Sunday, January 5, 2014

Collective rights: winning the battle, losing the war.

Because many libertarians came to their philosophy from the Right they often bring with them a style of discussion that betrays their roots. While their position may be correct philosophically  the way in which they express themselves conveys meanings they may not intend, alienating the people they are hoping to address.

Libertarians believe in individual rights. I have no problem with that. Rights reside entirely with the individual. There is no such thing as collective rights, just the rights of the individual. So it would seem logical for a libertarian to shun terms like “woman’s rights” or “gay rights” or “minority rights,” etc.

We should be clear that people use the term “rights” in two different ways, and without clarifying which one is using can lead to unnecessary confusion. When a libertarian says that someone has “rights” they are referring to the ideal situation, not to the actual situation. It is to the libertarian vision of individual rights that they are referring.

This causes an immediate problem as others may be using the term to describe the actual legal state of rights, not the ideal state of rights. Yes, gay people have precisely the same rights as straight people in the ideal sense of the term. In the actual sense of the term they do not.

Two individuals, each identical in every important sense of the word, who attempt to marry may be treated entirely differently if one is gay and the other is not. There is an inequality of legal rights, even if in the ideal sense of the word the two should have precisely the same rights. Legally the rights of gay people in America are not co-equal to the legal rights enjoyed by their heterosexual siblings.

Often when the term “gay rights” is used it is a term meant to address the inequality of rights that exist, not the ideal sense of rights. It is an attempt to move the actual rights enjoyed by gay people to an equal plain with the rights enjoyed by straight people.

The term “gay rights” is often used by someone who has no intention of creating a system of unequal rights. It is not a “special” right that is being sought, but the same rights that have been denied gay people by law. Similarly the term “women’s rights” is not generally meant to be a situation where women have different, or superior rights, but the same rights as men.

This does not mean that some people use the terms to disguise a campaign for unequal rights, but most people do not mean that at all. More often than not their opponents are actually the advocates of unequal rights, who wish to reserve special privileges to a class, race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Consider the likes of Maggie Gallagher and Jennifer Roback Morse. They fight for a system of marriage rights that excludes one class of people—gay couples. They want legal privileges reserved to another specific class of people alone. Yet opponents of equality of rights argue that it is the gay couples that are seeking “special” rights, when in truth they are attempting to eradicate special rights in favor of equality of rights.

There is also another aspect of “rights” which libertarians simply tend to forget, or never realized. While it is true that a person does not have rights because he is a member of a specific group, it is true that individuals frequently have their rights violated because he is a member of a specific group.

A gay woman may have the same rights as any other adult in the ideal world, but she may be denied some of those rights because she is gay in the real world. Taxation may violate rights on a relatively equal basis. A general sales tax hurts everyone regardless of what group he may be a member of while  “marriage amendments” disqualify individuals on the basis of a collective trait, not an individual one.

Racists attack blacks, or Jews, or foreigners, not on the basis of their individuality, but on the basis of some collective trait. Ayn Rand described racism as the “lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage—the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry.” Rand is correct this is what racism does.

Prejudicial viewpoints basically argue that an individual is not judged by his individual characteristics, but because he is a member of some larger collective. Instead of judging on the basis of the content of his character, the stigmatized individual is judged on the basis of his membership in some collective. Thus a woman may be deemed of lesser value because she is a woman, a black man may be treated like a criminal because he is black, and a gay man may be attacked physically or verbally simply because he is gay.

The bigot ignores all the aspects of the individual and instead focus on some shared collective trait. “All Muslims are... All homosexuals do... The problem with Jews is...” They don’t need to evaluate the individual because they assume the collective trait dominates. A Jew may be attacked, not because he or she has done anything wrong, but just because they are Jew.

When individuals are attacked because of their group membership they will quite naturally and reasonably focus on how members of their group are being singled out for attacks. While the terms “gay rights” or “minority rights” or “woman’s rights” are not philosophically precise they are a reasonable response to the attacks these people suffer because they are members of groups.

But, consider how libertarians respond to this understandable reaction by members of oppressed classes. The libertarian will often tend to ignore the fact that such people are being attacked for their membership in some larger collective. Instead of recognizing what is being conveyed they will attack the use of the collective rights terminology. So they will launch a high-sounding dismissal of the concept of “gay rights” while ignoring the way gay people are denied their rights due to the shared trait of their sexual orientation.

They are technically correct, but they have defeated their own purpose. They are ignoring the real troubling issue at stake to concentrate on a rather insignificant detail. By launching into a discourse on how rights are not collective traits they are not informing their listener about the nature of individual rights. They may mean to do that, but they are not doing that. They are actually sending the message that they don’t care that the rights of certain people are being denied because of some collective trait. That makes them sound like conservatives who are often the most vocal collectivists when it comes to denying equality of rights before the law.

The libertarian sentiment should naturally side with those who suffer oppression because of collective traits of no significance. Libertarians, who are supposed to be individualists, ought to be on the side of individuals who are being singled out because of collective, insignificant traits.

Libertarians ought to weigh the two sins being committed. On the one hand the victim uses a term that is imprecise and seems to convey that rights reside in collectives if taken literally. On the other hand what they are addressing is how they are being harmed by a hate that singles them out collectively, not individually. Of these two, the violation of individual rights is surely far more severe than a loose use of a term.

The first reaction of the libertarian should be to acknowledge that an individual is having their rights violated due to a collectivist concept regarding who they are. First address the issues of the oppression and collectivist hate. Before you begin lecturing someone about loose terms address the real, significant violation of rights that these victims are attempting to convey. Don’t major on minors.

When I hear the terms “woman’s rights” or “gay rights” I see what people are attempting to convey, not a philosophical debate. Turning it into a philosophical debate ignores the pain and oppression that these people have experienced at the hands of bigots. That is what I would expect from conservatives, not from libertarians. Focus first on the main issue, defend the rights of the individual which are being violated, make an ally and a friend, and they worry about terminology. Put the intent of the phrase ahead of the literal interpretation and give the philosophy lecture after you establish your credibility.


  1. For a variety of reasons, I don't consider myself a libertarian, but it's blog posts like this one, as well as others I've read here and elsewhere, that give me a lot of respect for the libertarian position.

    Thanks for writing this!

  2. You make some valid points, but I don't understand exactly what kinds of statements from libertarians you're arguing against. Can you link to some examples? Even better, can you explain what's wrong with each example? I ask because I'm not clear on which libertarians you're talking about.

    1. If you're interested, you can just check out the comments here for a good sampling ( I wrote on this topic last year and got a pretty whipping backlash.

  3. I don't see a need to list a whole bunch of example and go after specific people, given that most libertarians have run into exactly the sort of arguments I mention here. They are common and I have a hard believing you don't understand. But a 2 second good search turns this up from a site calling itself "laissez faire republic." "Real libertarians know that there are only individual rights, not group rights. There is no such thing as "gay rights" or "black rights" or "white rights" or left-handed Martian rights. Government must not be used to dish out special privileges to any group for any reason, since government cannot give anyone anything unless it takes it away from others by force, thereby violating their rights. There can be no such thing as a "right" to violate the rights of others."

    Notice the semantic game is all that is stated there, there is no attempt to understand what people mean by those terms and deal with the meaning, there is only a literalistic interpretation according to a fundamentalist libertarian perspective. It is the libertarian telling others what they have to mean instead of trying to understand what they do mean.

    The reason this was posted today, though written long ago, was because a "libertarian" did precisely this on a page that we participate in, whining about how there is no such thing as woman's rights or gay rights and ignoring the mean so he could score points on semantics.