There was a movie with this title some time ago, starring Richard Dreyfuss, that had to do with whether a person has the right to end his or her own life. If one has a right to one’s life, that choice is surely one’s own. Having rights has to do with freedom or liberty – the right to free speech doesn’t require one to speak but ensures that one has the authority to decide whether to do so. Similarly, having the right to one’s life places the choice as to whether to live in one’s own hands.
Ok, now here is an odd thing: A great many people on the political left are champions of the right to choose whether one will live, whether one will seek help in ending one’s life, etc., as well as whether one will end the life of a fetus a woman carries. They appear to be all about choice! Yet there is a diametrically opposite position also held mostly by people on the left, at least the more extreme versions.
For instance, Cora Weiss, who was a prominent American anti-war advocate during the Vietnam era, made the following claim that bears on this topic. She condemned refugees who had fled Vietnam because, she argued, “Every country is entitled to its people [who are] the basic resource that belongs to the country.” (Washington Post, May 29, 1978) Weiss was by no means alone in her views. The East Germans argued they had full moral authority to shoot those trying to scale the Berlin Wall because such people were stealing themselves from East Germany, from the country. Then there is the famous Marxist doctrine of the labor theory of property according to which the source of all value is human labor which, however, is public property since it is the major means of production that under socialism is collectively owned.
So then which is it? Do people own themselves and have the right to choose between living and dying or do they belong to their country and have no such right? You cannot have it both ways. This is one reason that any talk of human liberty coming from the political Left is hypocritical. Freedom is entirely meaningless unless it means the individual can exercise choice without being interfered with by government or anyone else. The only interference that is acceptable for free men and women is that which amounts to retaliation to initial interference by others, as in self-defense.
Why does this fall on deaf ears to those on the Left? Because their view is that individual human beings are just a fiction, an empty concept. Human beings are “specie-beings,” innately communal, and individualism denies this. This is not only the view of extreme Leftists like Marxists but also of the milder, Western variety, such as Michael Sandel and Charles Taylor, both of whom dispute that human beings are fundamentally individuals, with an independent identity, whose life belongs to them.
Now, for the Marxists and neo-Marxists this position can make sense since they are thoroughgoing collectivists and do not believe in such fictions as the right to freedom of speech, artistic liberty and so forth, let alone in the independent human individual. However, Western Leftists like to have it both ways, to champion both collectivist economics as well as what they would consider certain (individualist) civil liberties (like the right to self-destruction, the right to choose whether to terminate pregnancies, the right to the freedom to protest against society and so forth).
Only the classical liberal, libertarian political tradition has a consistent outlook about these matters. The individual does have a full – unalienable – right to his or her life, liberty and property (with admitted complications as these are translated into the legal system). No one has unchosen obligations – like those championed even by communitarians to serve the public interest – apart from respecting everyone’s basic rights, as they must respect one’s own. The resulting political economic order is known as the free-market capitalist system, with a constitution of firmly grounded individual rights that governments must also respect, even as they are established so as to protect them.
This is not a utopian system promising to make everyone happy, promising to rescue us all from the hazards of life, including alienation, poverty, illness, etc. But it is a system that is best suited to free men and women who have the capacity to make something of their lives if they are not intruded upon.
There is nothing antisocial about this system since free men and women have the right to unite in various cooperative efforts, provided they are free to choose and to opt out. There is nothing that a free society has against communities but it does exclude the kind of communities favored by the likes of socialists, communists, fascists and others who would forcibly herd societies to serve goals the members have not chosen for themselves.
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