Column on Chinese Fight for Genuine Freedom

Chinese Fight for Genuine Freedom


Tibor R. Machan


Over the last four centuries the idea of basic natural individual (human) rights has had a rough career.  After surfacing in history as far back as ancient Greece, then coming to nearly full fruition at the hands of the English philosopher John Locke–who had a major influence on the American Founders–several prominent political thinkers gave it a thumbs down.  The English jurist Jeremy Bentham ridiculed such rights, calling them all "nonsense upon stilts." Although the idea had been adopted to serve the thinking of some major legal theorists, philosophers were skeptical.  This is because philosophers began to move in the direction of the belief that only what could be observed could be known to be true and moral or political ideas could not pass this test, one that the sciences employed and benefited from.


Indeed, until the mid-20th century, ethics, morality, politics and aesthetics–all areas where one is concerned with norms, with how we ought to or ought not to think and act (where right versus wrong is most significant)–had been dismissed as literally meaningless.  Yes, what to ordinary people is the most important area of human life, namely the issue of what standards ought to guide our conduct, to the major academic philosophers had no foundation at all. This is because of the widespread philosophical belief that only what is perceivable can be meaningful–"I am from Missouri, show me!".  


This outlook lasted a long time, at least until it was realized, finally, that if it were true, then the rejection of these ideas would also lack any foundation.  After all, the skeptic is saying, "You ought not to use ethical, political or aesthetic notions," and that, of course, amounts to the ethical notion that it is wrong to think in terms of what we ought to do or ought not to do.


But many people in the academic philosophical world, including some very prominent legal philosophers, hung on to the skeptical position so that even in our day some of the most influential ones reject the idea that politics could be based on principles of right versus wrong.  Public opinion, majority rule, governmental edicts are all that can be invoked, meaning, of course, that in the end all we have is power underlying our morality and laws.  


This is one reason that the idea of rights is no longer based on human nature but on governmental power.  Several prominent legal theorists, some working in the new administration of Barack Obama, think that no one has any rights without government first giving it to them. Contrary to the American Founders, who stated clearly in the Declaration of Independence that government has as its job the protection of our bone fide rights–rights which exists without any government, rights based on human nature–these modern thinkers are taking us all back to the earlier era when rights were thought to be grants of the monarch, the king, Caesar or the voting majority.  This, of course, goes against the belief of the Founders that even the democratic majority is constrained by the rights of the people and just like the lynch mob, may not violate those rights.


This is one reason that in our day governments–politicians, courts, bureaucrats and the lot–take themselves to be the granters instead of discoverers of rights.  And ironically, it is now in countries across the globe that have had and still have governments that violate rights all over the place that the American Founders’ and John Locke’s views are dominant.  For example, the Chinese Charter 08 group, under the leadership of Liu Xiaoba and 302 dissidents, has written as follows:


"Human rights are not bestowed by a state. Every person is born with inherent rights to dignity and freedom. The government exists for the protection of the human rights of its citizens. The exercise of state power must be authorized by the people. The succession of political disasters in China’s recent history is a direct consequence of the ruling regime’s disregard for human rights."


It is truly amazing that today it is people who have lived under tyranny instead of in relative freedom who make such a declaration.


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