This blog grows out of my conviction that every aspect of our lives is sacred and is to be nurtured and celebrated as a good gift of God. Most of the posts will be the sorts of things you would expect from a historian and worldview teacher, but some are likely to be a bit surprising. Since God created all things good, including all aspects of human life, everything is interesting and important from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Everything under the Sun and under Heaven is thus fair game here. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Conservatives and Progressives on Identity and Rights

In my two previous blog posts on political theory (here and here), I explored some of the fundamental ideas that separate conservatives and progressives. Here, I want to examine one other difference and add libertarians into the mix: the question of the relationship between primary identity and rights.
I argued in Conservatives and Progressives redux that conservatives and progressives have fundamentally different concepts of identity: conservatives see identity primarily as an individual matter defined principally by our choices; progressives tend to see identity primarily in terms of membership in a group, typically defined by involuntary, generally immutable characteristics. While there is much more that can be said about this (such as whether some of these “groups” really exist over time or whether the characteristics are in fact immutable), here I want to look at the implications of identity on conceptions of rights.
Conservatives argue that rights are an individual matter, and that true rights are beyond the reach of government. In the language of the Declaration of Independence, we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights—that is, rights that cannot be taken away by government. These rights come to us as individuals, not as members of any particular group. Thus equal protection under law is a vitally important principle to the true conservative.
Progressives acknowledge individual rights but tend to argue primarily in terms of group rights. Membership in a group can give special rights that are conferred on the group by the government, particularly if the group can claim past oppression. These group rights trump individual rights when the two come into conflict. As a result, equal protection under law is not a useful concept to progressives.
As an example, look at hate crimes legislation. A conservative says, if I murder you, it doesn’t matter whether the motive is robbery, a thrill kill, revenge for a perceived wrong, or race; I am guilty of murder, and I should be punished accordingly. A progressive says, no, if the motive is race, it’s more serious, as long as the person is in a protected category. Thus whites that attack blacks are presumed to be guilty of a hate crime, but blacks who target whites are not. Equal protection under law does not apply—some people get more protection than others.
Similarly, affirmative action laws say that members of protected groups have to be given special consideration in hiring or admissions to school. All other things being equal, if it comes down to a choice, the minority gets in and the member of the non-protected group does not. This is usually justified on the grounds that it is a remedy for past discrimination, but the person who is not admitted is not the one who was guilty of discrimination. In other words, to ensure equality, some candidates are given preferences based on race or gender, while others are in effect disadvantaged for the same reasons through no fault of their own.
Unionization is another example. If I want to work for a unionized company, I must join the union whether I want to or not. The union’s rights as an identity group trump my right to free association and to enter into a contract freely with my employer. And what’s more, I have to pay for the privilege of joining the group that I am forced into if I want my job.
All of these are defended on the grounds that without them, we would be back in the bad old days when racial discrimination was rife and when businesses routinely abused their employees. The conservative response is that you do not fix one kind of discrimination by instituting another: violating individual rights is wrong, no matter what the reason and no matter who the victim.
The conflict between group and individual rights can get very complicated. Same sex relationships are a case in point. How do the different groups negotiate the balance between individual rights, group rights, and other social considerations in this case? I will explore this issue in a future article or blog post.