Collectivized ‘Rights’

by Ayn Rand

Rights are a moral principle defining proper social relationships. Just as a man needs a moral code in order to survive (in order to act, to choose the right goals and to achieve them), so a society (a group of men) needs moral principles in order to organize a social system consonant with man’s nature and with the requirements of his survival.

Just as a man can evade reality and act on the blind whim of any given moment, but can achieve nothing save progressive self- destruction—so a society can evade reality and establish a system ruled by the blind whims of its members or its leader, by the majority gang of any given moment, by the current demagogue or by a permanent dictator. But such a society can achieve nothing save the rule of brute force and a state of progressive self-destruction.

What subjectivism is in the realm of ethics, collectivism is in the realm of politics. Just as the notion that “Anything I do is right because I chose to do it,” is not a moral principle, but a negation of morality—so the notion that “Anything society does is right because society chose to do it,” is not a moral principle, but a negation of moral principles and the banishment of morality from social issues.

When “might” is opposed to “right,” the concept of “might” can have only one meaning: the power of brute, physical force—which, in fact, is not a “power” but the most hopeless state of impotence; it is merely the “power” to destroy; it is the “power” of a stampede of animals running amuck.

Yet that is the goal of most of today’s intellectuals. At the root of all their conceptual switches, there lies another, more fundamental one: the switch of the concept of rights from the individual to the collective—which means: the replacement of “The Rights of Man” by “The Rights of Mob.”

Since only an individual man can possess rights, the expression “individual rights” is a redundancy (which one has to use for purposes of clarification in today’s intellectual chaos). But the expression “collective rights” is a contradiction in terms.

Any group or “collective,” large or small, is only a number of individuals. A group can have no rights other than the rights of its individual members. In a free society, the “rights” of any group are derived from the rights of its members through their voluntary, individual choice and contractual agreement, and are merely the application of these individual rights to a specific undertaking. Every legitimate group undertaking is based on the participants’ right of free association and free trade. (By “legitimate,” I mean: noncriminal and freely formed, that is, a group which no one was forced to join.)

For instance, the right of an industrial concern to engage in business is derived from the right of its owners to invest their money in a productive venture—from their right to hire employees—from the right of the employees to sell their services—from the right of all those involved to produce and to sell their products—from the right of the customers to buy (or not to buy) those products. Every link of this complex chain of contractual relationships rests on individual rights, individual choices, individual agreements. Every agreement is delimited, specified and subject to certain conditions, that is, dependent upon a mutual trade to mutual benefit.

This is true of all legitimate groups or associations in a free society: partnerships, business concerns, professional associations, labor unions (voluntary ones), political parties, etc. It applies also to all agency agreements: the right of one man to act for or represent another or others is derived from the rights of those he represents and is delegated to him by their voluntary choice, for a specific, delimited purpose—as in the case of a lawyer, a business representative, a labor union delegate, etc.

A group, as such, has no rights. A man can neither acquire new rights by joining a group nor lose the rights which he does possess. The principle of individual rights is the only moral base of all groups or associations.

Any group that does not recognize this principle is not an association, but a gang or a mob.

Any doctrine of group activities that does not recognize individual rights is a doctrine of mob rule or legalized lynching.

The notion of “collective rights” (the notion that rights belong to groups, not to individuals) means that “rights” belong to some men, but not to others—that some men have the “right” to dispose of others in any manner they please—and that the criterion of such privileged position consists of numerical superiority.

Nothing can ever justify or validate such a doctrine—and no one ever has. Like the altruist morality from which it is derived, this doctrine rests on mysticism: either on the old-fashioned mysticism of faith in supernatural edicts, like “The Divine Right of Kings”—or on the social mystique of modern collectivists who see society as a super-organism, as some supernatural entity apart from and superior to the sum of its individual members.

The amorality of that collectivist mystique is particularly obvious today in the issue of national rights.

A nation, like any other group, is only a number of individuals and can have no rights other than the rights of its individual citizens. A free nation—a nation that recognizes, respects and protects the individual rights of its citizens—has a right to its territorial integrity, its social system and its form of government. The government of such a nation is not the ruler, but the servant or agent of its citizens and has no rights other than the rights delegated to it by the citizens for a specific, delimited task (the task of protecting them from physical force, derived from their right of self-defense).

The citizens of a free nation may disagree about the specific legal procedures or methods of implementing their rights (which is a complex problem, the province of political science and of the philosophy of law), but they agree on the basic principle to be implemented: the principle of individual rights. When a country’s constitution places individual rights outside the reach of public authorities, the sphere of political power is severely delimited—and thus the citizens may, safely and properly, agree to abide by the decisions of a majority vote in this delimited sphere. The lives and property of minorities or dissenters are not at stake, are not subject to vote and are not endangered by any majority decision; no man or group holds a blank check on power over others.

Such a nation has a right to its sovereignty (derived from the rights of its citizens) and a right to demand that its sovereignty be respected by all other nations.

But this right cannot be claimed by dictatorships, by savage tribes or by any form of absolutist tyranny. A nation that violates the rights of its own citizens cannot claim any rights whatsoever. In the issue of rights, as in all moral issues, there can be no double standard. A nation ruled by brute physical force is not a nation, but a horde—whether it is led by Attila, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Khrushchev or Castro. What rights could Attila claim and on what grounds?

This applies to all forms of tribal savagery, ancient or modern, primitive or “industrialized.” Neither geography nor race nor tradition nor previous state of development can confer on some human beings the “right” to violate the rights of others.

The right of “the self-determination of nations” applies only to free societies or to societies seeking to establish freedom; it does not apply to dictatorships. Just as an individual’s right of free action does not include the “right” to commit crimes (that is, to violate the rights of others), so the right of a nation to determine its own form of government does not include the right to establish a slave society (that is, to legalize the enslavement of some men by others). There is no such thing as “the right to enslave.” A nation can do it, just as a man can become a criminal—but neither can do it by right.

It does not matter, in this context, whether a nation was enslaved by force, like Soviet Russia, or by vote, like Nazi Germany. Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual). Whether a slave society was conquered or chose to be enslaved, it can claim no national rights and no recognition of such “rights” by civilized countries—just as a mob of gangsters cannot demand a recognition of its “rights” and a legal equality with an industrial concern or a university, on the ground that the gangsters chose by unanimous vote to engage in that particular kind of group activity.

Dictatorship nations are outlaws. Any free nation had the right to invade Nazi Germany and, today, has the right to invade Soviet Russia, Cuba or any other slave pen. Whether a free nation chooses to do so or not is a matter of its own self-interest, not of respect for the nonexistent “rights” of gang rulers. It is not a free nation’s duty to liberate other nations at the price of self-sacrifice, but a free nation has the right to do it, when and if it so chooses.

This right, however, is conditional. Just as the suppression of crimes does not give a policeman the right to engage in criminal activities, so the invasion and destruction of a dictatorship does not give the invader the right to establish another variant of a slave society in the conquered country.

A slave country has no national rights, but the individual rights of its citizens remain valid, even if unrecognized, and the conqueror has no right to violate them. Therefore, the invasion of an enslaved country is morally justified only when and if the conquerors establish a free social system, that is, a system based on the recognition of individual rights.

Since there is no fully free country today, since the so-called “Free World” consists of various “mixed economies,” it might be asked whether every country on earth is morally open to invasion by every other. The answer is: No. There is a difference between a country that recognizes the principle of individual rights, but does not implement it fully in practice, and a country that denies and flouts it explicitly. All “mixed economies” are in a precarious state of transition which, ultimately, has to turn to freedom or collapse into dictatorship. There are four characteristics which brand a country unmistakably as a dictatorship: one-party rule—executions without trial or with a mock trial, for political offenses—the nationalization or expropriation of private property—and censorship. A country guilty of these outrages forfeits any moral prerogatives, any claim to national rights or sovereignty, and becomes an outlaw.

Observe, on this particular issue, the shameful end-of-trail and the intellectual disintegration of modern “liberals.”

Internationalism had always been one of the “liberals’” basic tenets. They regarded nationalism as a major social evil, as a product of capitalism and as the cause of wars. They opposed any form of national self-interest; they refused to differentiate between rational patriotism and blind, racist chauvinism, denouncing both as “fascist.” They advocated the dissolution of national boundaries and the merging of all nations into “One World.” Next to property rights, “national rights” were the special target of their attacks.

Today, it is “national rights” that they invoke as their last, feeble, fading hold on some sort of moral justification for the results of their theories—for the brood of little statist dictatorships spreading, like a skin disease, over the surface of the globe, in the form of so-called “newly emerging nations,” semi-socialist, semi-communist, semi-fascist, and wholly committed only to the use of brute force.

It is the “national right” of such countries to choose their own form of government (any form they please) that the “liberals” offer as a moral validation and ask us to respect. It is the “national right” of Cuba to its form of government, they claim, that we must not violate or interfere with. Having all but destroyed the legitimate national rights of free countries, it is for dictatorships that the “liberals” now claim the sanction of “national rights.”

And worse: it is not mere nationalism that the “liberals” champion, but racism—primordial tribal racism.

Observe the double standard: while, in the civilized countries of the West, the “liberals” are still advocating internationalism and global self-sacrifice—the savage tribes of Asia and Africa are granted the sovereign “right” to slaughter one another in racial warfare. Mankind is reverting to a pre-industrial, prehistorical view of society: to racial collectivism.

Such is the logical result and climax of the “liberals’” moral collapse which began when, as a prelude to the collectivization of property, they accepted the collectivization of rights.

Their own confession of guilt lies in their terminology. Why do they use the word “rights” to denote the things they are advocating? Why don’t they preach what they practice? Why don’t they name it openly and attempt to justify it, if they can?

The answer is obvious.

(June 1963)

“Collectivized Rights,” copyright The Virtue of Selfishness © 1963 by Ayn Rand, renewed © 1985, by Ayn Rand. Used by permission of Dutton Signet, a division of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Reproduction in any form without permission prohibited.

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