Thesis Number: #9 (Page 9 of 10)

Learn, or Lament?

Our global community of nations needs a shared “human rights” doctrine. The one that originated with the UN’s Universal Declaration is not fit for purpose. It is a legacy of the English aristocracy (which explains why the Declaration makes no provision for an enforceable right of access to land). Under it, people may assert rights; but are not required to honour corresponding obligations. This ensured that the human rights agenda would disappoint the masses in the post-World War II era.

The land grabbers had to separate rights from responsibilities, if they were to successfully dishonour the feudal arrangement. In that form of social organisation, holding land was conditional on rendering service to the state. Adam Smith affirmed that this obligation remained valid for the era of commerce: rent paid into the public purse reflected the benefits received from the state. The knights of yore had to rupture that rule. So they created a class that was irresponsible; it answered to no-one but themselves.

Without a new doctrine of rights and obligations, we may expect many more eruptions of the Arab Spring kind, as people react against the injustices of post-colonialism. But while these events raise people’s hopes, expectations will be dashed. This is tragically illustrated by events in the Islamic world.

When popular protests led to the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Libya, the people could not control the outcome in favour of everyone’s welfare. The western “democracy/rule of law” paradigm was not sufficient to construct people-centred solutions. Military figures continued to exercise power. So, when the Moslem Brotherhood president was ousted in Egypt, the power behind the throne turned out to be a general. Armies in Moslem states are major land-owners in their own right, their rents funding the privileged lifestyles of those in command (Pakistan’s army is a notorious case). The construction of more secular political arrangements will be conditional on not challenging the power of the military (Saleh 2013). Can anything be done about this?

The task of reconstructing society on new social foundations in the Islamic world must begin by examining Sharia law. This censures “interest” as usury, but permits the privatisation of community-created rent. If the West wishes to deal with jihadist fundamentalists in its spheres of interest, it must confront the suicide bombers with an ethical economics that resolves the crises induced by poverty. Someone needs to explain that it is feasible to jump-start the growth of a new kind of society that is shorn of institutionalised poverty and faithful to moral and spiritual norms.

The only practical formula is the renewal of what John Locke called the Social Contract. The two cornerstones are respect for the rights of others, and stewardship of nature. Starting with the notion of a contract, we may begin to reverse the damage inflicted on people who were dispossessed of their natural right to “life, liberty and estate”. Estate is the old English word for land. But so embedded is the culture of rent-seeking that change will only happen if whole populations are mobilised in favour of moral renewal – a Great Awakening that supports the crafting of a new social contract.

Locke argued that people entering into civil society, and submitting to government, do not relinquish their natural right to “life, liberty and estate” (Locke 1690: Ch. 7, §87 and Ch. 9, §123). But as it happens, he played fast and loose with this doctrine to excuse the vast estates of the aristocracy (he deployed the concept of money as a store of value to negate his own proviso – that the accumulation of land was conditional on leaving sufficient good land to meet the needs of others). Locke’s doctrine was awkward for America’s Founding Fathers. They resorted to an elegant solution. They deleted the word estate when they incorporated the doctrine into their constitutional documents (land was replaced by “the pursuit of happiness”). By this means, America’s written constitution sanctioned the economics of apartheid. That constitution continues to blight the lives of the people of that great nation to this day.

The time has come to re-negotiate the social contract. It is not for the agents of the state (who represent the culture of cheating) to appoint lawyers to write that contract. We, the People, are under an obligation to engage in an interrogation of all the options before jointly drafting, and giving our consent to, a settlement that emancipates everyone to participate in the create of a post-civilisation society.

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