Sunday 24 March 2013

What’s wrong with rights

Our thanks to the grumpy old blogger Grumpy Old Liberal, who recommends a new book called Defending Politics by Professor Matthew Flinders of the University of Sheffield. The publisher’s website summarises the book’s central thesis:
Matthew Flinders makes a highly unfashionable but incredibly important argument of almost primitive simplicity: democratic politics delivers far more than most members of the public appear to acknowledge and understand. If more and more people are disappointed with what modern democratic politics delivers then is it possible that the fault lies with those who demand too much, fail to acknowledge the essence of democratic engagement and ignore the complexities of governing in the twentieth century rather than with democratic politics itself? Is it possible that the public in many advanced liberal democracies have become ‘democratically decadent’ in the sense that they take what democratic politics delivers for granted? Would politics be interpreted as failing a little less if we all spent a little less time emphasising our individual rights and a little more time reflecting on our responsibilities to society and future generations?
If this publisher’s blurb is anything to go by, Flinders is right on the money. We need more emphasis on the need for a just society, in which people’s life chances are not diminished by social class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or any other factor beyond their control. The emphasis on individual rights has hindered not helped the cause of social justice. It has turned the debate into a pissing contest between self-interested groups with competing claims to victimhood, while those most in need have been left behind.

Things went wrong in the 1980s. The main reason the left completely failed to mount a serious intellectual challenge to Thatcherism is that it had become self-obsessed. As I wrote in my chapter of Reinventing the State:
The right may have believed that ‘there is no such thing as society’ but there is a tendency to forget that, during the 1980s, the left became just as self-indulgent. It was the decade of being ‘right on’, when the left abandoned its traditional social concerns and instead emphasised the solipsistic obsessions of identity politics, a movement that rapidly descended into our present-day culture of victimhood.
We can see this phenomenon at work within the Liberal Democrats. The party has set up a ‘Candidate Leadership Programme’ “to identify, develop and support some of the best candidates from under-represented groups within the Party”. Yet some of the 40 places on this programme have been allocated to privileged white women at the expense of ethnic minority candidates, which has led to a furious dispute between those responsible for the programme and Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats. Such outcomes are inevitable when attempts to create greater justice are perverted by competing claims to victimhood, especially when this enables the sharp elbows of the middle classes to hog resources and opportunities originally intended for those who are genuinely disadvantaged.

Self-centred demands also create a problem for democratic politics in general, because they are bound to lead to dissatisfaction. With the best will in the world, democratic politics simply cannot satisfy millions of individualised wants simultaneously. Markets can do that, which if fine if you are choosing a car, a washing machine or a packet of breakfast cereal – and you have sufficient money to make a real choice. But when it comes to the ‘commonweal’, our shared interests, democratic politics is the only power available to most people to make meaningful choices. However, the job of democratic politics is to reconcile rather than gratify. It cannot function properly without a sense that we share the same space and are not merely out to seek personal advantage or instant gratification.

Liberals are always vulnerable to charges of promoting selfish individualism. We must always be clear that, when we talk about individual liberty, we are cherishing the uniqueness of each and every person, and seeking liberty and life chances for each and every person. But this approach can work only in the context of a society in which mutual respect is fostered. That is why we should always place individual rights in the context of an overall demand for social justice, and why demands for ‘rights’ irrespective of other people’s needs are wrong.

So the next time you hear a wealthy and privileged party member pleading victimhood to gain personal advantage, challenge them with this simple question: “Why is it always about you?”

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