I have just watched this interview in which Ross Ashcroft of the Renegade Economist talks to author and film-maker David Malone about democracy, economics and more.
There’s a lot of good stuff in it but one idea struck me as something really special.
David Malone argues that the idea of individual rights – human, constitutional, whatever – is counterproductive. He wants us to turn the idea of individual rights on its head and replace it with the idea of individual obligations.
As an example he says that there should be no “right” to live in peace in our own homes. Instead, he says, you should have an obligation to ensure that I can live in peace inside my home, and I should have the same obligation to you.
Think about how powerful this is.
Under a system of rights I am sitting in one corner demanding what’s due to me while you’re sitting in another corner demanding what’s due to you. Both of us are expecting some third party to come along and give us what we need.
Under a system of obligations I have to come out of my corner and help you to get what you need, and you have to do the same for me. Instead of waiting passively for someone else to provide, each of us is duty bound to take action and make sure that the other person is provided for.
Rights make us childish, expecting stuff to be done for us by a higher authority that’s paternalistic, powerful, hard to challenge. We take what we’re given with meek acceptance, petulant grumbling, or the occasional impotent tantrum.
Obligations turn us into adults, people who are responsible for the well-being of others and the decisions that affect that well-being. If they’re well-defined and commonly agreed our collective will to discharge these obligations becomes very powerful. When enough people are determined to do something that they believe is right, it gets done.
Article 25.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is worded thus:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
This sounds good but it’s nothing more than a statement of what should happen.
Imagine if we changed the title of the document to the Universal Declaration of Human Obligations and the wording of Article 25.1 to something like:
“You and I have an obligation to ensure that everyone else has access to adequate food, clothing, housing, fuel, medical care, and whatever else they need to live in dignity and comfort for the whole of their natural lives.”
We now have a statement of what should happen and who is responsible for making it happen: us.
Nothing gets done in this world until someone gets off their backside and does it. Demanding our rights – even demanding rights for others – isn’t enough. If we want things to change for the better we have to get off our collective backsides and make things happen.
If those in favour of Scottish independence are serious about transforming Scotland into “the greatest small country in the world” then maybe they should be campaigning for a Bill of Obligations instead of a Bill of Rights.