China and the Origin of Rights

Eric X. Li in The New York Times argues that:

America and China view their political systems in fundamentally different ways: whereas America sees democratic government as an end in itself, China sees its current form of government, or any political system for that matter, merely as a means to achieving larger national ends.

The implication developed further is that:

The West seems incapable of becoming less democratic even when its survival may depend on such a shift.

Li’s argument develops the idea that the repression of the Tiananmen movement in China was a strategic move that resulted in the underlying political stability for the current economic growth wave in China!

It’s hindsight bias, though, that builds on a kind of utilitarianism that asserts that there are political and social values that outweigh the rights of individuals (and that are predictable in their output). Indeed, Li asserts as much with:

The fundamental difference between Washington’s view and Beijing’s is whether political rights are considered God-given and therefore absolute or whether they should be seen as privileges to be negotiated based on the needs and conditions of the nation.

God is, of course, unnecessary in this equation. What is more relevant is whether an individual’s rights to freedom–whether of conscience or property–should be considered to supersede the desires of the state or collective. This was expressed as endowed by the Creator in the Declaration of Independence, but there was no particular justification provided in the Constitution. Rights are simply agreeably good in the US Constitution, subject to the same floor-plan as the rights and limitations of the Judiciary or the Legislative Branch, and even limited in some cases where just compensation for property seizures is allowable.

Critically, protecting the individual through negative rights, when contrasted with asserting political power to achieve uncertain future goals, is less likely to harm anyone and shows the inherent weaknesses of proactive utilitarian ethics. Eric Li should take this to heart.

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