Software Nerd

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Rights: French and American

Here is how a intelligent Harvard professor begins a blog post:

All societies must set limits on health care....
This opening sentence is not the focus of his post, and he probably thinks it is uncontroversial. Laissez-faire is often seen as just another way in which a society sets limits on health care: i.e. by letting individuals decide. The formulation is thus seen as neutral: encompassing all types of systems, from Communism to Capitalism.

However, the formulation reflects a very specific way of looking at political systems.

As illustration, compare the French and American revolutions. Both desired new political systems, based on rights, but they had different perspectives.

The Americans saw rights in the design of man's nature. The key question they asked was: what rights does a man need as protection against tyrants democratic society at large, to make it worth his while to engage in society while pursuing his happiness? Meanwhile, across the pond, the French revolution was conceptualized more as a class-struggle. Perhaps this is understandable, given the historical setting. Their concept of rights came much more from a notion of egalitarianism. The key question here was: how do we design a more egalitarian society?

The French-inspired view is now so prevalent that people (like the professor quoted above) consider it as uncontroversial. They take a system-design perspective, rather than the perspective of what is morally due to an individual person. Finally, this view leads to the type of democracy that the American founders feared.



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