Saturday, October 17, 2009

Rights and the Common Good

I was recently interviewed, in my capacity as a member of the National Political Committee of Democratic Socialists of America, for a monthly radio program called “The Socrates Exchange”, which airs on New Hampshire Public Radio ( for schedule). The question I was asked to discuss was “Are individual rights more important than the common good?” The show’s producers told me they intended to interview a socialist and a libertarian on this, then edit the interviews into a kind of radio dialogue or debate. Since I had to order my thoughts for this interview, anyway, I thought the topic would make a good blog post for this week.

My first thought was that I was being asked, in a sense, to argue in the “language” of my libertarian opponent. Not that socialists aren’t profoundly interested in human rights. Over the past 200 years, socialists have probably fought more to expand human rights than any other single group of people –struggling to expand the franchise in the 19th Century, fighting for Civil Rights in the U.S. in the mid 20th Century, fighting for labor rights such as fair pay for a day’s work, and decent working conditions, in both Centuries, and more. But the concept of rights is not really central to a socialist analysis, in the way it is to libertarians. A socialist analysis is a dynamic analysis – we are interested in processes and forces. We are, thus, concerned with the political and economic forces which might prevent people from enjoying their rights; we are concerned with the way people organize themselves to win their rights; and we are concerned with the social and democratic process by which those rights are defined or constructed in the first place.

This matter of social construction particularly distinguishes a socialist from a libertarian view on “rights”, I think. A libertarian takes rights as prior to social construction – if not to society itself (cf. Robert Nozick “Anarchy, State and Utopia”). In fact, they take one particular right – the presumptive right of property – as prior to everything else, deriving all the rest of their political and social philosophy, and their ideal conception of the state, from this.

This priority of rights makes no historical or ethnographical sense. Our ancestors were social animals before they were humans; the idea that such a complicated conception as a right to property could arise, in a form any human society would recognize as such, in an animal perhaps less mentally developed than a macaque, strains the credulity. And the complex and varied systems of individual and collective property and use that anthropologists have found in different human groups, and even the sharing behavior ethologists have found in other primates, are simply incompatible with the kind of theoretical primacy libertarians like Nozick place on a simple “mine” and “yours” concept of property.

To a socialist, at least to this socialist, all imaginable rights, even the very concept of “property”, itself, are socially constructed. One thing that this suggests is a special importance for those rights which enable people to participate fully in the political processes by which all rights (including these) will be constituted, in other words, for democratic rights: the right of free association, right of free speech, right to vote, etc. Another thing that is suggested is that, unlike some imagined a priori right, socially constituted rights will be inherently contextual, and limited in scope – I may have the right to bear arms, but if I bear them so carelessly as to cause another’s death, I am guilty of manslaughter. I may have the right to free speech, but I may not maliciously cry “fire” in a crowded theater.

In fact, if rights are socially constructed, and in a democratic society, the very idea that individual rights could be set up against the common good appears as a false dichotomy. When people define a right socially, democratically, acting in solidarity, they are defining it precisely with a view to furthering “the common good”, according to their best lights. There may be a debate about how far to extend the right so as to best effect the common good, but the idea that the right should be extended beyond that point, to imperil the common good, is nonsense.

Of course, in a non-democratic, unsolidaristic society, an elite group may try to define “rights” for itself over against the rights of some other group – i.e., they are defining some special privilege which they should have, and the others not (hence the “divine rights” of the nobility, and kings.) But from a socialist point of view, when the attempt is made to define some elite privilege as a right, to the detriment of “the common good”, then it is incumbent on the non-elites to challenge legitimacy of that right.

In other words, from a socialist point of view, “individual rights” which are contrary to the “common good” are not “rights” but “wrongs”.

With regard to property, in particular, socialists not only disagree with libertarians on how the concepts of “property” and “property rights” are constituted, we disagree on how wealth is produced. Libertarians tend to focus on an individual’s role in production as legitimizing their subsequent monopolization of part of the product. Socialists understand that all property is socially produced. The idea that is possible to uniquely and precisely determine the contribution of one person to the total output is ludicrous. None of us makes it “on our own” in this life. If nothing else, we are raised, nurtured, educated by others. Our role in the production of goods and services is deeply embedded in a social matrix: we work on committees and task groups, process materials produced by somebody else, etc. (Perhaps we should exclude the fanatical few who go out of their way to live as “survivalists”. But even the most committed, hardy mountain man probably uses steel traps made by workers in a factory somewhere.)

Since wealth is socially produced, socialists believe that society should make collective decisions about how to use and distribute it. This doesn't mean society "owns" the shirt on your back. Socialists make a distinction between personal property and productive property, or capital. The ability to live a decent life requires a certain amount of non-interference by others in the basic day-to-day decisions affecting your life, and this implies a de facto “right” to “enjoy your personal property”. But accumulations of property – capital – are a productive resource that affects the lives of tens, hundreds, thousands, even millions of people. Decisions as to the use of that kind of property should be made collectively, with the fullest democratic participation possible of all people who will be affected.

In a sense, socialism, the kind of socialism that Democratic Socialists of America espouses, is simply deep democracy. We believe that all important decisions affecting our lives should be made with the full participation of all who are affected by them. The selfish will of the few should never be allowed to trump the human need of the many.

References: Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” is a worthy polemic on libertarian theory by a serious (even if, in this case, completely wrong) philosopher. Frans De Waal “Good Natured”, which I’ve also referenced in a couple of other posts, has a good discussion on primate sharing behavior. “Understanding Capitalism” by Samuel Bowles, Richard Edwards and Frank Roosevelt has (mostly in side bars) some interesting ethnographical information of differing property relations. It also discusses some of the other themes above, and is an excellent basic text book on classical economics written from a democratic socialist point of view.


  1. David, this should be published in Democratic Left! Or can we get it on Alternet or Portside. (I don't keep up with all these progressive list serves or email or internet groups.)

  2. Yes, this is excellent. If not DL, it should at least be published on The Activist.