01 January 2011

John Gray on Rights

Kalim Kassam has found a fascinating book review by John Gray in The National Interest.

The review is of Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, which sounds pretty interesting.

Gray fleshes out some detail of what he wrote about in Black Mass, which I discussed here in 2008. I was put off Black Mass by what I thought was excessive generalisation, a misplaced attempt to force a grand unifying thesis on events.

Dealing with a specific, that problem does not arise, and I have little to quarrel with here.

The first point is the recency of the dominance of the idea of primary universal human rights — Moyn dates the idea to the late 1970s, and Gray blames it on John Rawls. He identifies the key flaw in Rawls' theory, which is that it simply takes for granted a state structure that cares somehow for the well-being of its subjects in a fairly broad way, and only suggests how such a state should best define and pursue that aim. How such a historically unlikely state can come to exist and be preserved is not addressed.

(That is also, of course, the flaw that has separated me from most forms of libertarianism, which is an alternative —indeed superior— program resting on the same unwarranted assumptions*).

Best quote: But if human rights are artifacts that have been constructed in specific circumstances, as I would argue, history is all-important; and history tells us that when authoritarian regimes are suddenly swept aside, the result is often anarchy or a new form of tyranny—and quite often a mix of the two. Human rights as artifacts echoes what I and David Friedman have said; the anarchy and tyranny following revolution is just what I was talking about in the context of the Nobel Peace Prize. The neatness is slightly marred by the use of that unfortunate word "authoritarian" again — here it seems to mean "anything other than modern liberal democracy", which is at least less mysterious than Assange's version.

The review also serves as an example of Mencius Moldbug's claim, that the common assumptions of today are the Harvard ideas of two generations ago.

Obviously the claim of inherent human rights is not entirely new — I vaguely recollect some mention of "all men ... unalienable rights" in an old document of some kind. What is new, according to Moyn and Gray is the moral primacy of human rights; not endowed by a creator but independent, the starting point of a moral system.

Gray's piece also contains what could be seen as a response to my criticism of Black Mass; he constrains what he calls "utopian" projects to those where it can be known in advance that its central objectives cannot be realized. The question of what can be realized and what cannot is, of course, usually the centre of political controversy to start with. "Politicians make promises they can't keep" — there's a shocking new idea.

*This is unfair to some libertarians, including David Friedman. Separate post to follow.

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