Additive vs Subtractive rights

I’ve been thinking a lot about individual rights and progressive policies lately. The rise of the Government-as-snooping-boogeyman with all the Snowden NSA-related leaks, individual or collective hackers penetrating every software services there is, my own privacy, our collective security, my own happiness, our collective moral strata. I’m going to think out loud here: these aren’t fully-formed thoughts, there’s likely massive holes in logic, and likely others far smarter have written far deeper about any piece. But I wanted to invite conversation.

In general, I’ve come down to this idea: when making policy, it is progressive to put the individual before the group when creating an additive right. Conversely, it is progressive to put the group before the individual when creating a subtractive right. What do I mean by these? let’s dig:

Additive Right

In my mind, this creating a new “allowance” in policy, morality or law, that was not previously there. The prime example in my mind is marriage rights. Ages ago, inter-racial marriage was not allowed. It was a progressive change to add that right for all of society: that is, it was better for the whole to allow this than to listen to the individual right to disagree with this. Gay marriage follows the same rules. Allowing gay marriage will disappoint individuals who disagree with this rule, but I’d argue it is a greater good for the group to allow this: more people will be made happy, without directly removing anything from any one person. In my mind, most moral judgements that change tend to be additive rights: Marriage rights, drug legalization, sex-work laws — they’re more likely to reflect growing trends and changes in moral thought, and thus while yes — cause consternation for those who do not yet agree with these changes to moral code — do no particular harm either.

Subtractive Right

These are policies and laws that remove or diminish rights of people. Most policing laws would be subtractive: you can not do X. Much regulation and oversight is likewise (Gun control laws, environmental regulation). Security/spy lays are similarly subtractive because they diminish privacy. These laws generally cause me the most internal anguish — for instance: I intensely value privacy and the (currently default) assumption that I have a right to private communications & thought. On the flip-side, I also agree that there should be regulation of “dangerous” things: Guns, Industrial development, vehicular safety, finance. I recognize that when I agree that guns should be regulated, I give up some privacy & anonymity. When industry is regulated, the collective wins safety, but the individual loses flexibility and possibly profit. Conversely though, and this is where I start to twist into moral-argument pretzels: there’s Ben Franklin’s famous axiom:

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety

In general, I believe that hacking/snooping is contemporary warfare. I believe information warfare reduces state power and empowers “rogue” actors. I believe it is the right of the government to defend not just itself, but its citizens, both human and corporate, from this. Conversely, I don’t believe that the government should be able to listen to everything all the time in an attempt to do this. But where the tipping point is? I don’t know. Pervsasive snooping on citizenry is definitely a subtractive policy: it subtracts liberty & privacy. Because we’re, as a whole, likely better off by abrogating the privacy of a few individuals by a policy like this, it could be seen as a progressive policy. But — state-monitoring has long been the tool of the autocratic Right. Socialist governments regulate, Autocratic governments dictate, right? But here’s what’s worrying me about this:

  1. I keep falling into this philosophical quagmire wherein I find myself agreeing with some laws and not others, without a consistent framework of evaluation: it comes down to “I like that” and “I don’t like that”, which is a terrible means of evaluation.
  2. Democratic fundamentals: debate, compromise, free-expression seem to be increasingly incapable of keeping up with a technocratic society, in which information is free (in terms of cost), but simultaneously hugely expensive (in terms of privacy). I’d always believed more information would be better for debate — but it appears to be the opposite, because when information costs nothing to have, the channels of distribution become increasingly valuable and thus susceptible to control.
  3. As a developer, I’m complicit in the rise of this massively overwhelming information store that threatens & offers progress. I’m very conflicted: Massively distributed communication tools (the web, social media)are amazing for progressive ideals: yet these very tools are inherently compromised by the security/monitoring apparatus that we dislike. Here I am writing words, for free, on a site owned by a foreign corporation whose corporate policies & submission to their government’s laws I have no influence over. But even writing on my own site: It’s still on a server owned by someone else — I just rent space. Even in my own home, it would be connected via servers owned by a company — but I’m not sure is that’s better or worse than being a government pipe?

Wow. I sort of digressed there. I don’t know how to continue this. More thought, more books, more time?