[EM] 'Rights' -side up

Joe Weinstein jweins123 at hotmail.com
Tue Jul 30 18:27:21 PDT 2002

On 28 July I noted that:

"James [Gilmour] worries about infringing on rights or anyhow desires of 
some citizens not to be bothered with full participation in decision-making, 
even for a few days every few years.  I don't want to get into arguments 
over whether government has a 'right' to draft every citizen into a bare 
minimum of equal-burden-sharing service."

In response, James wrote (29 July):

"Joe I think you are still looking at this world upside-down, which a little 
surprising, given the view you are promoting.  The government has no rights. 
  It has (should have ?) only the rights and powers that we, the people, 
give it."

This response makes little literal sense: if the government truly has no 
rights (speaking de facto, or possibly de jure, or both), then (de facto or 
de jure or both) there’s no point trying to describe exactly what rights it 
has or should have.   However - James please correct me! - likely what is 
meant is that “the government” starts out in principle by having no rights, 
but then gets - or ought to be allowed - “only the rights ... that we, the 
people, give it.”

I have two responses to this.

(1) In terms of my specific proposals,  I'm looking at the world not 'upside 
down' but rightside up, straight from where we are, and I stand simply by 
what I said.  My proposals represent improvements no matter WHAT - if 
anything at all - one takes to be the ‘rights’ and ‘powers’ of ‘the 
government.’   Namely, in any event we would do better by having decisions, 
on law and public policy, be made by ad-hoc citizen decision juries rather 
than, as now, by an officer elite; and we would do better by having any 
desired elections be at collegiate scale, or be replaced by jury 

(2) Quite separately, we may anyway discuss just what are the 'rights' or 
'powers' of the 'government'.  We could pose the question either concretely 
or normatively.  Concretely: for a given existing or historical government, 
such as the central government of the UK or of the USA, which specific 
rights and powers does (or did) that government successfully claim and 
maintain?  Normatively: in principle, what rights and powers are inherent in 
a true ‘government’?

James’ response above seems to start to answer the normative question, and I 
agree with his apparently intended answer, as far as it goes: ‘the 
government’ should get ‘only the rights... that we, the people, give it’.  
However, specifics here need clarification.  For instance, exactly what 
counts as ‘the government’?  How may ‘the people’ ‘give’ rights to the 
government; and how, if at all, may ‘the people’ later take these rights 
away from the government?   Note too that the very concept implies that a 
genuine 'government' be granted to have some special ‘rights’ or ‘powers’ 
that enable it to act.

James’ post makes some remarks on the concrete question, for current and 
past UK and USA governments, and then returns to its 'main point', on the 
normative question, as follows:

'I wasn't so much concerned with what "the government" has the right to 
demand of us, but rather what we, as members of our communities, at all the 
various levels of community, from street to nation, might reasonably be 
allowed to demand of one another.  I may think it would be "better" if 
everyone in the relevant community did indeed participate, and participate 
very fully, but do I have the right to expect or demand that of the other 
members of my community?  Do they have the right to opt out, with the 
proviso that they accept the consequences?'

I like James’ rephrasing - away from intimidating terms such as  
‘government’ and its ‘rights’ -  to friendlier lingo:  ‘what we ... might 
reasonably be allowed to demand of one another’.

Here’s one thought about this issue.  In any ‘community’ whose members 
generally desire the community’s sustainability, those members will attempt 
to evolve stable, equitable and workable expectations of each other’s 
behaviors.   In essence, traditional lingo uses  (community) ‘rights’ (or 
member ‘responsibilities’) for these mutual expectations of behavior.

An ‘opt-out’ right clearly is not absolute or unlimited, so long as people 
deem themselves to be living in a common and to-be-sustained community.   On 
the other hand - as my 28 July post noted -  for any desired service, a 
reasonable community is obliged to encourage and use citizens who volunteer, 
before turning to others who are more reluctant to serve.

In the USA, ordinary people can readily 'opt out' without causing 
obstructing public decisions, because there are far more than enough people 
wishing to 'opt in' to the  decision-making elite.  However, like it or not, 
the great majority of us are involuntary opt-outs, as we have no practical 
chance to be either elected officers or high appointees.

[Aside:  What pop-journalism portrays as ordinary citizens’ individual 
‘participation’ in politics - namely voting, rather than office-holding - is 
in general meaningless in practical impact.  By ‘opting out’ I therefore 
DON’T mean ‘not voting’.  But anyhow, our present system requires few if any 
voters: all it needs is enough candidates to fill offices.]

Here and now in the USA, many of us ordinary involuntary opt-outs would be 
happy to get a small piece of the real political action - direct 
decision-making - as members of citizen decision juries.  For one thing, we 
could finally and meaningfully apply all the theory and practice of civics 
which we learn in the public schools and through experience in volunteer 
organizations - and on trial juries!

Joe Weinstein
Long Beach CA USA

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