Sunday, 16 September 2012

"Rights" Vs "Permissions"

In a piece replete with the usual and inexcusably concrete and perfunctory references to "housing justice" and "land justice" rather than simply justice, Mo Yan-chih reports the remarks of John Liu (劉可強), a designer, upon accepting an award from the Taipei City government's department of cultural affairs...
“The city government must take a stance on urban renewal and exercise its authority to resolve the disputes while bearing social justice in mind..."
The problem with this statement... is that it is a kind of bullshit - one commonly found in newspapers, universities and elected legislatures throughout the world. Rather than stating his meaning clearly, Liu's meaning is disguised behind the formality of metaphor and abstraction (e.g. "take a stance", "authority", "social justice").

The first two copulated predicates, "must take a stance on urban renewal", and "exercise its authority to resolve the disputes" may be taken as a reference to the Wang case and other such cases both in general and in perpetuity - as implied by the use of present tense. Taken at face value, these two predicates would seem to endorse the "authority" attributed to the government to evict recalcitrant defenders of their property, such as the Wangs.

Turning to the third predicate, "while bearing social justice in mind...", the English verb phrase "bearing in mind" denotes a casual form of consideration rather than formal stipulation to a principle, and hence signals a weak rather than a strong position. Yet perhaps more important than that is the use of the term "social justice". Given that "social justice" - if the term is to have a clear conceptual referent at all* - refers to an egalitarian distribution of resources, Liu's overall statement may be interpreted as meaning that the government must make some informal consideration to replacing the properties of those victimized by urban renewal and land expropriation projects.

So perhaps Liu would be satisfied if the city government were merely to consider offering the Wangs another house somewhere else? I find that to be a persuasive interpretation of Liu's reported remarks.

Assuming Liu would agree with this interpretation, then I think I would cite it as a clear illustration of why "social justice" is not, and cannot be, a logically coherent basis on which to oppose the violation of the Wangs' property rights.

The choice is simple, and is what I have always said it was: you either believe in the rights of the individual or you don't. And if you don't, then you should - at the very least - quit using the term "rights" and refer instead to mere permissions, because that is what you actually mean. To further elucidate this point, I quote myself verbatim from my most recent comment at J.M. Cole's largely unattended blog:

"...the difference between a "right" and a "permission" is in the location of authority.

Where a right describes the limit within which a person may authorize (from "author") his own actions without any obligation to consult others, a permission describes the limit within which he may act on someone else's authority (generally, the Left identify this "someone else" as community, hence my joyful abandon in calling them "commies").

The distinction is relevant thus: so long as we are dealing with "negative" rights, and not the made-up "positive" ones, then the rights of one person will generally tend to be circumscibed by the rights of another. My right to freedom of expression is constrained by J.M.'s right to control the published content on his blog.

If we are dealing with permissions that we merely call "rights" for PR value, then these permissions are constrained merely by the will of the external authority alone, which begs the question of whether these "rights" will be upheld in accordance with professed principles, or merely in obedience to the caprice of popular political opinions.

So although the Congress is charged with defending "rights", the fact that it is an elected body ought to - at the very least - raise the suspicion that what it is actually defending are permissions that can be rescinded if sufficient political pressure is brought to bear.

This is the point which the pan-green supporting academics, DPP officials and so on, in pretending to be outraged by what was done to the Wangs and the Miaoli farmers, could not quite bring themselves to admit: they do not support the rights of the people, but only politically contingent permissions. They understood well enough that were they in government rather than the KMT, then they would also like to reserve the power of "expropriation" for their own political uses - and to hell with the rights of the people."

*Terms without conceptual referents signify "anti-concepts".

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