Selling a Life—Politics

A great many seeming unrelated conversations have sparked a flurry of self-reflection. Discussion of political concepts like “inalienable rights,” “liberty,” and “force,” and reminiscing mission stories with my brother over the Thanksgiving holiday, have crept into my analysis of the collapse of my personal world which is always lurking in the back of my mind. Like many of the best science experiments, unexpected contamination is breaking new ground in my journey to be a disciple of Christ.

Since it is too complicated for one post, I’ve broken down my thoughts into three loose groups, politics, marriage, and missionary work. I will cover the other two in future posts.

It seems that “rights” are often confused with two concepts; “realities” and “deserts.” Politically speaking, rights are concepts which controlling bodies of people have agreed should be protected by government, unless an individual acts in a way to void their free exercise of those rights. Rights are those things the protection of which has been decided to be the entire purpose of government. When government fails to protect an individual’s free exercise of those rights, the authority of the government is voided.

But this does not mean that exercise of these rights is a reality for everyone, nor does it mean that everyone deserves the exercise of their protected rights regardless of their own behavior. Most people can agree that neither complete loss nor complete consequence-free exercise of those rights is valid under the contract between the people and the government. Most political disagreements arise within the grey areas; how far free exercise of rights should be allowed to run before it can be considered as infringing on another’s rights, when a person has voided government protection of their granted rights, and what should be done about it when they do.

Laws exist to clarify those grey areas, to represent a more-or-less mutual agreement of what citizens of a community under a common government can expect. So long as there is any law, no matter its origin, there will be people who do not agree with it and do not wish to keep it. Politics is ostensibly the process by which a group of governed people works out compromises and grey areas which can be agreed upon, particularly in any sort of government in which the people have direct legal methods by which to affect government. In essence, a document like the Constitution is a social contract, unique in that it is somewhat entered into at birth. It lays out what the participants—ie. citizens—can expect from their citizenship, both what they can expect to be granted in theory by the government, and what the government will do to ensure that those things are granted in reality.

If a citizen decides he or she no longer wishes to be governed by that contract of citizenship, they are free to terminate it and no longer avail themselves of the benefits of the contract (such as the freedom to live and work in a country.) They can seek to enter into a citizenship contract elsewhere which is more to their liking. Or, they can break the contract by committing crimes against it and be fined, incarcerated, banished, or even executed.

The marriage covenant is a contract that defies some aspects of the concept of “unalienable rights,” but that is for the next post.

26 thoughts on “Selling a Life—Politics

  1. Starting at the foundation of the pyramid, let us first consider the origin of those freedoms we have come to know are human rights. There are only two possible sources. Rights are either God-given as part of the Divine Plan, or they are granted by government as part of the political plan.

    Reason, necessity, tradition and religious convictions all lead me to accept the divine origin of these rights. If we accept the premise that human rights are granted by government, then we must be willing to accept the corollary that they can be denied by government. I, for one, shall never accept that premise.

    As the French political economist, Frederick Bastiat, phrased it so succinctly, “Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.” (The Law, p.6) …

    If Americans should ever come to believe that their rights and freedoms are instituted among men by politicians and bureaucrats, then they will no longer carry the proud inheritance of their forefathers, but will grovel before their masters seeking favors and dispensations.

    —Ezra Taft Benson

  2. SilverRain,

    agreed that the ways rights are politically determined and politically enforced is a political process. But like LDSPhilosopher and Ezra Taft Benson, I think most Americans would agree that rights are inherent, natural, or god-given, and exist prior to and apart from the way any particular political community recognizes or applies them.

    While people are true to seek other political communities, that mitigates but doesn’t obviate the force of the complaint that a particular political community is unjust in that it doesn’t properly recognize rights or properly clarify the gray area between conflicting rights.

    To my mind, the real question is what we should do if we decide that a particular political community is unjust. Peacefully work to change things? Rebel, revolt, or passively aggressively do as little for the community as we can get away with while being as subversive as we can get away with? Leave? The best answer I have is the answer in the Declaration of Independence and in some of the Catholic encyclicals that rebellion, etc., is justified only when the situation has gotten extremely unjust and the horrors of revolution and collapse of legitimacy are better than the alternative. My view is informed by my belief that all earthly governments will be unjust to some degree and by my belief that public order is fragile and likely to recoalesce into a worse state once it has collapsed.

  3. I agree that life and liberty, for example, are given by God, and that is originally why the rights are generally considered rights that should be protected by government. But that doesn’t change the legal application of those rights. Also, that does not mean that they cannot be taken away by others (in other words, that they are realities,) nor does it mean that we deserve to exercise those rights without consequence.

    For this reason, among many others, there are a lot of grey areas to hash out about what “rights” mean, and how far they can be exercised freely in the public sphere.

    I don’t think anyone would disagree that there is a limit to the exercise of personal rights, because there is a point at which such exercise infringes upon other rights.

    Therefore, most political discussions become a matter of subjective opinion on acceptable degrees of the exercise of rights and liberties, not on whether or not they exist, nor on whether or not they should be limited.

    The answers to your questions, Adam, are precisely the things I would like to explore. What should be done once a political contract such as the Constitution is breached, and those rights it acknowledges are no longer protected? Because it is inevitable, given the subjective nature of such a determination, that individuals will disagree on the particulars.

    With that in mind, there is also a vast difference between what a person in such a position SHOULD do, and what they CAN do. All of that is fairly subjective, as well, which is a large part of my point.

    You can try to say that divinely-granted rights are not granted by the government, but in reality it is the fact that such rights ARE protected and supported by government which moves them from the realm of “rights” to “realities” for many people. While certain rights are divinely-granted, they can easily be taken away by wicked people, for such is the nature of a fallen world. And THAT is why the government exists and is divinely approved.

    As a side note, I will say this: there is no excuse to demonize most people who disagree with a person politically. By “demonize,” I mean determine that they are lacking in morals, intelligence, or righteousness. Each and every one of us is put here, in part, to learn to distinguish “good and evil.” It is guaranteed that we will make mistakes. There is no reason to determine another person as not worth our energy, time, or respect simply because they do not agree with our personal, likely faulty, judgment.

    Because each of us has equal likelihood to miss a factor in our judgment that causes us to judge ignorantly, or even unrighteously, it shows wisdom and maturity to recognize and treat political disagreements with a measure of temperance, humility and forgiveness.

  4. All this talk of rights, etc. makes me think the American experiment set out by our forefathers has really failed. We’re certainly still called America, but I really can look at the prophetic statement like, “Americans should ever come to believe that their rights and freedoms are instituted among men by politicians and bureaucrats, then they will no longer carry the proud inheritance of their forefathers, but will grovel before their masters seeking favors and dispensations.” and think that we are still continuing in the tradition of “Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.”

    Although we may bear the same name, and although there may be some individuals who hold to this truth, as a nation we’ve long sense departed from it as a philosophical underpinning for our present day actions.

  5. I still don’t understand how we can say with certainty that our rights come from God. King Benjamin says: “In the first place, He created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him. And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you, for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you, and therefore he hath paid you, and ye are still indebted unto him…of what can ye boast? can ye say aught of yourselves? Nay, ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth.”
    And Paul, in the original Greek, “You are not your own, you are bought with a price, you are slaves of Christ.”

    What right do we have to demand any right at all? Everything is given by grace. None of it is a right. We have always been, and will always be unprofitable servants.

    All this talk of rights sounds very French. Are rights really any different than free agency? Free-agency can be used to do whatever we want, good or bad, and in whatever context, either as a slave, choosing what to think and how to serve, or a free-man, choosing what color of shoes to buy. We can abuse others without consequence in this life if our governments don’t intervene, or we can abuse others and be punished by the governments where we happen to have been born, if they catch us. Scores are settled in the next life, and even there, nothing can truly be settled, because God gives us much more than was ever taken from us, even under the most abusive of circumstances.

    And if our inalienable rights to life and property are given by God, doesn’t that give us the right to complain to God when he takes life and property away through earthquake and famine?

    Rights, as we are discussing them, are inseparable from the governments that define them. Because with God, there is no “right.” Only “grace.”

    Life? A free and unearned gift God gives to some, and takes from others.

    Liberty? Free agency to do whatever you want in this life good or bad, and be freely forgiven by the blood of Christ if you repent. Freedoms can be curtailed by God, governments, Satan, or whatever. Life is a big free-for-all, as far as free-agency is concerned. Justice comes in heaven, but even if we were abused, nothing can make up for the abuse we all personally heap upon Jesus.

    Property? All belongs to God. Under the Law of Consecration, everything you own is merely on loan, and can be seized at any time, just as God can seize anything you own through famine, accident, or disease at any time.

    I have to disagree with Pres. Benson on this one. (Was he speaking as a prophet, or as the right-wing crusader of conservative politics in that sermon?) I think our concept of “rights” is entirely a concept of secular humanism, the Enlightenment. Of course it was inspired by God. God told Jefferson, “Hey guys, it would work really well if you made a government with “rights,” because you are all a bunch of babies fighting over toys.” It’s wonderful, it works, it has created the greatest society on earth. But ultimately, the success of that society is a distraction from the kingdom not of this earth.

  6. One can say that God owns everything we have, and that we are only stewards, and still believe that it’s immoral for any other man to forcibly take that stewardship from us. Nate, I don’t think you really understand what President Benson is saying. In fact, it sounds like you’re agreeing with him. Only God can take our lives, because they belong to Him. God gives us our stewardship, so only He can rightfully take it away. Liberty is granted by divine providence, but no mortal can morally take it from us.

    In other words, the only person who can morally deprive us of life, liberty, and property is God Himself. To attempt to empower mortal men to do so is to arrogantly envy the role of God.

  7. Also, Nate, liberty is not the same thing as moral agency. Liberty is freedom from coercion from other mortals. Moral agency is our ability to respond, for good or ill, to any situation life throws at us. And God has forbidden us from exercising coercion in ways that curtail the liberties of others.

  8. Hi LDSP. I would be interested in examining the concept of “liberty” and “rights” from a scriptural point of view. I imagine we could both find evidence to support our different perspectives.

    I personally can’t recall scriptural evidence supporting the concept of “inalienable rights.” There may be some from D&C supporting the principles of the Constitution, but I don’t think that can be counted, because it basically is a divine stamp of approval on the Constitution, which has it’s roots not in religion, but in secular humanism. D&C doesn’t negate the fact that “inalienable rights” is a foreign concept in the scriptural record leading up to the constitution, and is not compatible with the doctrine of Christian grace.

    I think you can find a lot of scriptures supporting the idea of “justice.” But this is different than “rights.” Justice is the divine polarity of grace, and it has a much different meaning than “rights.” Agency also, as you mentioned, also has a different meaning than “rights.”

    While I believe the idea of “inalienable rights” is an inspired innovation when instituting governments in a fallen world, I don’t think it has it’s roots in religion, nor in the doctrines of the Millennium or in the heavenly after-life, where there are no rights, just graces.

    And I don’t think you can call it a “right” if God can give it to you, and then take it away. A right is a right. If God is just, he would give you your rights, and let you keep them. If God is unjust and arbitrary, he would take away your rights.

    But God’s endowment to mankind is much better understood as grace, the rain that falls on the just and the unjust. The equal payment to those who work all day in the heat of the sun, and those who work for just an hour. God’s ways are full of grace, not rights.

  9. Doctrine and Covenants 134 speaks of inalienable rights.

    By inalienable, I mean that no mortal without divine permission can morally take them away. That’s perfectly within the Lockean paradigm (from which the term inalienable rights springs), since John Locke himself believed the same about inalienable rights.

    The idea of inalienable rights doesn’t constrain God—instead, it constrains man. It tells us was we may or may not morally do. It doesn’t say what God can or cannot do.

  10. But that’s just it. There is a difference between God-given “rights,” which are essentially just laws and commandments like any other divine commandment, and legally-granted “rights,” which may be built upon what people believe are the former, but may be built simply on social convention, depending on an individual’s personal belief.

    The word “rights” often connotes “deserts,” when that is not really what it means.

    In a country increasingly consisting of those who do not believe in God, we have to recognize that the divine meaning of “rights” does not necessarily translate to a legal meaning.

    Which supports one of my earlier assertions, that the type of government, outside of obvious extremes, is not nearly as important as the righteousness of the governing/governed. What earns our government divine approval is that it slows down the corruption process, and grants natural, legal checks to such corruption. The only real lasting answer to a government’s infringement of rights is not to overthrow the government, since that only buys time. It is to promote righteousness (which I plan to discuss more in the last post.)

  11. I’d like to ask for clarification of the word *liberty* as it is being used here. When we quote Pres. Benson warning about encroachments upon our liberty, how do people here understand the term? I would have thought we all accept some sort of externally imposed limits on our behavior, but after reading some of the responses here, I am no longer confident of that assumption.

  12. With that in mind, there is also a vast difference between what a person in such a position SHOULD do, and what they CAN do.

    I can see what you’re saying, but I would argue that what such a person SHOULD do is determined by what he CAN do.

  13. How so, Adam? I feel that there are many situations in which a person could do something, but shouldn’t. If decisions were made in a vacuum, I could see your point, but in reality there are many peripherals that might change an isolated “could” into a “shouldn’t.”

  14. Quite, but you’re arguing something different from what I meant. I’m trying to say that our moral obligations with respect to unjust governments are constrained by what is possible for us to accomplish. I would be sceptical that you would usually have an obligation to do something that you can’t do.

    In other words, in logic terms

    A=you can do X
    B=you are obligated to do X

    and I am asserting
    if not A, then not B

    which is not the same thing as
    if A, then B

  15. So A does not necessarily lead to B, which is what I was saying, but without A, you can’t have B. I can agree with that.

  16. SR, the discussion of natural rights is as old as civilization. We are not treading on ground here that has not been tread before by Moses, Plato, Cicero, Montesquieu, Locke, Jefferson, Mill, etc.

    First, you need to see yourself as a human being born into this world. What are your “rights?” Do you have the “right” to take stuff from your neighbor? No, you don’t, this is immoral and interferes with your neighbor’s rights. So, you have a right to your own property and so does your neighbor. Two of the 10 commandments deal with this: do not steal and do not covet. Second, you have a right to your own life. People cannot kill you as long as you are not harming them. Yet, another commandment. Lastly, you have a right to your own liberty. People cannot make you a slave — it is immoral and violates your personal property rights as well as you right to your own life.

    The foundation of these rights is the lack of force. Force is the great evil and violates agency as well as liberty. Satan is about force: the Lord is about long-suffering and persuasion and free will. Nonaggression is the basic principal of humanity as well as a central feature of the Gospel. Think of Nephi and Laman: Laman wanted to force Nephi to live life his way — Nephi wanted to use persuasion. Eventually, Nephi moved away rather than be forced into a war with Laman — Nephi avoided forced and aggression while Laman sought it out.

    These are the only rights you have as a human being, the rights to life, liberty and property, which is why they are in the Constitution and in D&C 134:2. Any other right (“the right to health care,” “the right to a living wage,”) violate other human rights in the sense that you cannot have a “right” to health care without forcing somebody else to give it to you. You do not have a “right” to a living wage because this means somebody else must be forced to to provide it to you. And remember force is the great evil. Satan wants to force us to do things, the Savior wants to convince us without force.

    So, it is perfectly OK to believe that people should give of their goods to others — this is a basic foundation of the Gospel, and I believe it 100 percent. But you cannot FORCE others to give without (unconsciously) adopting a Satanic philosophy. Jesus always used moral suasion, never force.

  17. Just a general comment on the importance of natural rights and placing them in the correct context. I think sometimes people don’t really understand the difference between “rights” and “benefits” and “rights” and “societal expectations.”

  18. Oh, that makes sense. I thought you were trying to convince me of something, and I didn’t see any connection between anything you were saying and what I was saying in this post. -l-

    It wouldn’t be my first blonde moment.

  19. The foundation of these rights is the lack of force. Force is the great evil and violates agency as well as liberty. Satan is about force: the Lord is about long-suffering and persuasion and free will. Nonaggression is the basic principal of humanity as well as a central feature of the Gospel.

    Everything from the war in heaven to the cherub with a flaming sword to the Midianites to Laban to Captain Moroni to Christ in the temple to 3 Nephi 9 to Porter Rockwell to the Nauvoo Legion to the fearsome Christ of the 2nd Coming suggests that you overstate your case. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.

    Rights cannot be maintained against evil by moral suasion alone.

  20. Adam G, note the word “nonaggression.” Force in self-defense is morally justified. All of the examples you cite were defensive battles, not aggressive, offensive battles.

    God is not a pacifist, but he does expect us not to initiate force and aggression. I guess you could argue there are exceptions (Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, Nephi killing Laban), and theologians spend a lot of time pondering the morality of these exceptions. Joseph Smith came to the conclusion that when God orders it, it is morally justified. But the fact that these are exceptions makes it clear that the primary rule is nonaggression.

  21. “Politics is ostensibly the process by which a group of governed people works out compromises and grey areas which can be agreed upon, particularly in any sort of government in which the people have direct legal methods by which to affect government”

    SR, I pretty much entirely agree with everything in this post.

    I understand why people are ‘arguing’ with you that rights actually come from God. But I got you the first time that what you meant was that from a legal (i.e. temporal) perspective, rights are something we mutually decide upon. These two points are not mutually exclusive nor does the idea that we mutually decide upon rights imply they don’t come from God. (i.e. we mutually decide to codify into law the rights most, but not all, believe come from God.)

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