Some say that ideas have no consequences. They do. But often shabby ones take the limelight, and so the consequences are less than glorious. More frequently the consequences are confused and indirect, rather than horrid and easily traceable as in the case of Nazism or communism.
Moreover, there are good ideas that can become corrupted. Consider "democracy." What can be understood by the concept in the best and most consistent way is quite valuable: a method of selecting between political alternatives based on the legal right of citizens to participate in a vote. Thus, constitutional democracy whereby the violation of people's rights is not open to a vote is far more valuable than wholesale democracy.
Yet wholesale democracy is not the worst rendition of this idea when in the hands of corrupters. Consider the rendition it has received at the hands of Marxists. Poland was a democracy all along with its one-party dictatorship. The USSR is a democracy—or, actually, a republic, along with China! What a crude joke that is.
A similar thing has come to pass with rights. When understood as meaning the sphere of authority of moral beings, as the freedom of conduct to be respected by others, then it is a valuable thing indeed to pinpoint rights, especially the basic human, natural rights that every human being possesses. But the idea is as open to abuse as any other.
A drastic abuse is that perpetrated by the Soviet legal quacks who declaim that rights are whatever the State asserts one must do with its approval—the right to vote for the Communist Party, for instance, or to praise the great Soviet leaders. Thus, by coercing people to do whatever it deems proper, this marvelous monument to Karl Marx's version of Alice in Wonderland's more bizarre scenes has made itself out to be a defender of human rights.
Less-tortuous corruptions of the concept of rights are evident as well. The right to live without fear, for instance, is just one such relatively harmless yet corrupt application of a fair and good thing. And the right to read. And animal rights—more confusing but perhaps somewhat more benignly motivated, inasmuch as one can hardly blame those who wish well for animals to grab at an abused but catchy idea to make their point.
Sure enough, if folks have the right to read—if we should grant the desirability of reading the status of something coercible for and of people—then animals have rights. Don't we find it unseemly for animals to be treated with cruelty and callousness? And are there not instances when this could well be avoided? Certainly. But to call this a right of animals against being used by humans for food and pleasure and even entertainment is something else again. Yet given what has happened with some of our best ideas in human history, how they have been twisted by confused and sometimes evil people, is it any wonder?
There is "freedom," too. What does it mean now for thousands of intellectuals? To be free means, for these wise folks, to be without need, without any impediments to automatic progress toward health, knowledge, pleasure, love, virtue, and whatever else one might desire. Freedom is not seen, as it should be, as the absence of obstacles to action thrown up by other people's willful intervention.
Why? Because whoever heard recently of any such capacity as willfulness, of choice, in human life? That was killed off by science, wasn't it? Well, so it seemed, from all the propaganda we have heard. Now that kind of freedom seems to have been all but lost to our consciousness, especially along the corridors of academe. It is the free state of being, the unimpeded existence, that concerns most of our social and political gurus, even if we have to bring it about by the whip. This is the state that is brought about in the spirit of "You will be free, like it or not!"
Is it hopeless, then, to set any store by ideas? No. Eternal vigilance is not just freedom's price but the price to be paid for truth, virtue, even beauty. One must keep checking, clearing things up, making sure not to buy some phony rendition of a good idea, yet not to miss out on improvements, either. Conservatives are right enough about many developments being better left to traditional motivations, because new ones often are hopelessly muddled while the old ones have survived much harsh weather. Yet, unless we keep our minds on them, all too often the traditions can get worse, and we might miss some of the good ideas not yet thought of.
So I would not despair completely when I hear about the "freedom" of the Albanian people, or the "rights" of pigs, or even the "democratic" economic plans of a Tom Hayden. It is more vital to keep up the pressure in support of good things than to recoil at the junk. As Shakespeare observed through King Lear, "Goodness and virtue to the vile seem vile." Likewise, freedom and rights to the confused will become confusing. The point is, contrary to Humpty Dumpty, not who will be master of the house but how well the house is going to be built. And that, this time following Humpty, is up to us in the end.
Tibor Machan is a senior fellow in residence at the Reason Foundation. His books include Human Rights and Human Liberties and A Libertarian Reader (forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield).
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Corruption of Ideas".