Collective rights, petty debates and real pain.
Because many libertarians came to their philosophy from the Right they often bring with them a style of discussion that betrays their roots. While philosophically their position may be correct the way in which they express themselves conveys meanings they do not intend and alienate the people whom they are hoping to address.
Libertarians believe in individual rights. I have no problem with that. Rights do reside entirely in the individual. There is no such thing as collective rights, just the rights of the individual. So it would seem logical for a libertarian to shun terms like “woman’s rights” or “gay rights” or “minority rights,” etc.
We should be clear that people use the term “rights” in two different ways, and without clarifying which one is using can lead to unnecessary confusion. When a libertarian says that someone has “rights” they are referring to the ideal situation, not to the actual situation. It is to the libertarian vision of individual rights that they are referring.
This causes an immediate problem as others may be using the term to describe the actual legal state of rights, not the ideal state of rights. Yes, gay people have precisely the same rights as straight people in the ideal sense of the term. In the actual sense of the term they do not.
Two men, each identical in every important sense of the word, who attempt to join the military may be treated entirely differently if one of those men is gay and the other is not. There is an inequality of legal rights, even if in the ideal sense of the word the two men should have precisely the same rights. Similarly two couples will be treated very differently when it comes to marriage rights if one couple is gay and the other is straight. Legally the rights of gay people in America today are not co-equal to the legal rights enjoyed by their heterosexual siblings.
Often when the term “gay rights” is used it is a term meant to address the inequality of rights that exist, not the ideal sense of rights. It is an attempt to move the actual rights enjoyed by gay people to an equal plain with the rights enjoyed by straight people. The term “gay rights” is often used by someone who has no intention of creating a system of unequal rights. It is not a “special” right that is being sought but precisely the same rights that have been denied gay people by law. Similarly the term “women’s rights” is not generally meant to be a situation where women have different, or superior rights, but precisely the same rights as men. This does not mean that some people use the terms to disguise a campaign for unequal rights, but most people who use these terms do not mean that at all. More often than not their opponents are actually the advocates of unequal rights before the law, individuals who wish to reserve special privileges to a class, race, gender, or sexual orientation.
Consider the likes of Maggie Gallagher and Jennifer Roback Morse. They fight for a system of marriage rights that excludes one class of people—gay couples. They want legal privileges reserved to another specific class of people alone. Yet opponents of equality of rights argue that it is the gay couples that are seeking “special” rights, when in truth they are attempting to eradicate special rights in favor of equality of rights.
There is also another aspect of “rights” which libertarians simply tend to forget, or never realized. While it is true that a person does not have rights because he is a member of a specific group it is true that individuals frequently have their rights violated precisely because he is a member of a specific group.
A woman who is gay may ideally have precisely the same rights as any other adult, but she may be denied some of those rights because she is gay. Taxation may violate rights on a relatively equal basis. A general sales tax hurts everyone regardless of what group he may be a member of while Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell disqualifies individuals on the basis of a collective trait, not an individual one.
Racists attack blacks, or Jews, or foreigners, not on the basis of their individuality, but on the basis of some collective trait. Ayn Rand described racism as the “lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage—the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry.” Rand is correct this is what racism does.
Modern prejudices or bigotries basically argue that an individual is not judged by his individual characteristics but simply because he is a member of some larger collective. Instead of judging on the basis of the content of their character the stigmatized individual is judged on the basis of his membership in some collective. Thus a woman may be deemed of lesser value because she is a woman, a black man may be treated like a criminal because he is black, and a gay man may be attacked physically or verbally simply because he is gay.
The bigot ignores all the aspects of the individual and instead focus on some shared collective trait. “All Muslims are... All homosexuals do... The problem with Jews is...” They don’t need to evaluate the individual because they assume the collective trait dominates. Thus all homosexual men are disqualified from the military, not because of any trait of the individual, but because of their group status. A Jew may be attacked, not because he or she has done anything wring, but just because they are Jew.
When individuals are attacked because of their group membership they will quite naturally and reasonable focus on how members of their group are being singled out for attacks. While the terms “gay rights” or “minority rights” or “woman’s rights” are not philosophical precise they are a reasonable response to the attacks these people suffer because they are members of groups. They are not singled out for attack on the basis of their individuality, but on the basis of a shared collective trait, usually one of no significance.
But, consider how libertarians respond to this understandable reaction by members of oppressed classes. The libertarian will often tend to ignore the fact that such people are being attacked for their membership in some larger collective. Instead of recognizing what is being conveyed they will attack the use of the collective rights terminology. So they will launch a high-sounding dismissal of the concept of “gay rights” while ignoring the way gay people are denied their rights due to the shared trait of their sexual orientation.
They are technically correct but they have defeated their own purpose. They are ignoring the real troubling issue at stake to concentrate on a less significant detail. By launching into a discourse on how rights are not collective traits they are not informing their listener about the nature of individual rights. They may mean to do that but they are not doing that. They are actually sending the message that they don’t care that the rights of certain people are being denied because of some collective trait. And that makes them sound like conservatives who are often the most vocal collectivists when it comes to denying equality of rights before the law.
The libertarian sentiment should naturally side with those who suffer oppression in a state or culture because of collective traits. Libertarians, who tend to be individualists, ought to be on the side of individuals who are being singled out because of collective, insignificant traits.
Libertarians ought to weigh the two sins being committed. On the one hand the victim uses a term that is imprecise and seems to convey that rights reside in collectives. On the other hand what they are addressing is how they are being harmed by a hate that singles them out collectively not individually. Of these two the violation of individual rights is surely far more severe than a loose use of a term.
The first reaction of the libertarian should be to acknowledge that an individual is having their rights violated due to a collectivist concept regarding who they are. First address the issues of the oppression and collectivist hate. Before you begin lecturing someone about loose terms address the real, significant violation of rights that these victims are attempting to convey. Don’t major on minors.
When I hear the terms “woman’s rights” or “gay rights” I see what people are attempting to convey, not a philosophical debate. Turning it into a philosophical debate ignores the pain and oppression that these people have experienced at the hands of bigots. That is what I would expect from conservatives, not from libertarians. Focus first on the main issues, defend the rights of the individual which are being violated, make an ally and a friend, and they worry about terminology. Put the intent of the phrase ahead of the literal interpretation and give the philosophy lecture after you are established your credibility.