From rights to responsibilities

In part this is a follow-on from the previous post on the fundamental flaws underlying all forms of currency, but it also has many implications for businesses, enterprise-architectures, societal models, corporate social responsibility and much else besides.

And don’t worry, I’ll aim to keep this one short(ish) ūüôā [later:¬†turns out it’s another long one – sorry…] – though I’ll probably return to the theme quite a bit in subsequent posts.

The key point in the previous post was that no ‘alternative-currency’ would solve the socioeconomic problems that we currently face: the all-too-evident failures and failings of the money-economy are merely at the symptom level, and attempting to replace conventional state-issued currency with some other kind of home-grown alternative would be merely one more variant on the theme of ‘shifting deckchairs on the Titanic‘.

Yet clearly we do need something that will enable us to operate the kind of global-scale exchanges that our current economic models allow – because without that, it’s obvious that the city-based cultures especially could quickly collapse into anarchy of the worst possible kind.

It might perhaps be a surprise that what I’m suggesting here as an alternative actually is anarchy – but anarchy only in a strict technical sense, and of a radically different form.

Let me explain.

In the previous post I hope I made it clear that there is no way in which a possession-based economy can be made sustainable. Therein lies the real economic problem: possession is a classic example of the antipattern that “for every complex problem there’s a least one clear, easily-understood wrong answer”.

Underpinning that ‘wrong answer’ is another even deeper ‘wrong answer’: the notion of rights. Possession is defined as a right – the right to personal property, and so on. (In British law it’s more subtle again, in that it’s actually defined¬†as a right to exclude others from access to resources that they may need: as the 18th-century jurist William Blackstone put it, “that “sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe”.) But there’s a catch – a very important catch. To paraphrase Margaret Mead:

Rights are a social fiction; responsibilities are a social fact.

More to the point, it’s probable that responsibilities are the ‘social fact’ – that the structure of a society is actually an emergent property that arises from the intermeshing of mutual responsibilities. A society – and hence that society’s economics – arise from those mutual responsibilities. A society’s economics represent its recognised means and controls via which its available resources are shared, exchanged and used – and those ‘means and controls’ are, in effect, defined and circumscribed by mutual responsibilities.

You might ask “So where do rights come into this?” But that’s the whole point: they don’t. Rights don’t even exist in any real sense: they’re just a convenient social fiction, useful for some circumstances – as we’ll see in a moment – but dangerously misleading in others. And economics and purported ‘rights of possession’ are a good example of where the rights-discourse is indeed dangerously misleading – as all of us are discovering right now…

In principle, and in practice, a possession-based economics sort-of makes sense with exchangeable, ‘alienable’ assets: the simplest way to put it is that the fiction of ‘personal property’ provides a very convenient shorthand in modelling economic transactions with those types of assets. It doesn’t work properly, ever, with any other type of asset – which is why most current notions of ‘intellectual property’, for example, are best described as a very expensive bad-joke.¬†But even for ‘alienable’ assets, when we follow the respective trails of provenance – the history of transfer of ‘rights of possession’, such as a title-deed for so-called ‘real-estate’ – we almost invariably find that the ultimate anchor of that trail is an arbitrary act of expropriation, an arbitrary and ultimately-indefensible “claim” of “sole and despotic dominion”. In that sense, in most cases, the old anarchist slogan is probably all too accurate: “all property is theft”. In other words, our economics has no defensible basis at all: the whole thing is a fiction of the worst possible kind.


So what do we possess? Anything at all? Is there anything on which a real economy can actually be built?

I’ll admit that this next point is arguable, but as I understand it, there are only two things that we each truly possess: our own time, and own responsibility. Everything else devolves from that.

The catch with time is that it’s our own time, embedded in us, part of us – it’s not something that we can exchange as such with anyone else, in currency-like fashion. (The failure to understand that point is what renders all would-be time-based currencies inherently invalid even before they start.) Our own time – literally ‘life-time’ – is also inherently uncertain; and our ability to use that time within our allotted span – or whatever you want to call it – is also highly variable and highly contextual. Which in practice means that the only thing that is real – the only thing upon which we could build an economics – is responsibility. To be more precise, each person’s responsibility for self, and – in a societal context – mutual-responsibility¬†to and about others.

(An aside: what this means in practice is that we are only responsible for self – a point which might make this seem somewhat more palatable to Libertarians and their ilk. But Libertarians and neoliberals alike tend to forget about the corollary: that the only person responsible for self is the self. In practice, this means that those same Libertarians and neoliberals would soon starve if the mutual responsibilities of a society – something that so many of them so patently despise – did not in fact exist. To be blunt, the sole basis of those particular philosophies is a fundamentally dishonest attempt to ‘have their cake and eat it’ – to demand have the ‘rights’ that arise from those mutual responsibilities, but without actually engaging in any of those responsibilities themselves. More on that in a moment.)

In a functioning society – and, in turn, its functioning economy – we are each responsible for ourself, and to and/or about each other. Among other things, this also means that there is no ‘They’, who are somehow responsible for fixing everything: there is only ever ‘Us’. And if there are only responsibilities, ultimately there are no rules to hide behind, no places in which we can evade responsibility: we are each¬†personally responsible for the effective and sustainable running of everything. Which, in effect, is a kind of anarchy – but one that is the almost exact antithesis of the ‘me-first’ form of ¬†anarchy that typifies a possession-economy run wild.

In fact I won’t even describe that maelstrom of self-centredness as ‘anarchy’, because it isn’t actually a functional society at all. Instead, I tend to use the term ‘paediarchy‘: rule by, for and on behalf of the childish. In essence, a possession-economy is a paediarchy: the antithesis of ‘economy’ in the literal sense, and typified by – in fact dependent on – the pointless wastefulness and petty vanity of an overly-pandered-to two-year-old on the rampage.

The crucial theme of the ‘terrible twos’ stage in child-development is the slow realisation that there is such a thing or one as ‘the Other’ – which fact is countered by an almost desperate demand to be reinstated and reassured as ‘the sole Centre of the world’. A very strong sense of entitlement to that position that we fear we’ve lost – hence the temper-tantrums that arise whenever that certainty is challenged. That’s where the notion of ‘rights’ comes from: it’s a child’s demand that the world be in our control, yet be responsible for us in every possible way. In that sense, ‘rights’ are an artefact of childish immaturity: as children grow up, they usually grow out of that stage, and recognise that the world is much more complex – much more interesting, too – and that relationships need to be created, negotiated, maintained, rather than based on indefensible demands of ‘entitlement’. In practice, though, some children never grow out of that childish stage, or more accurately cling on to the purported ‘rights’ of that childish stage – and that is actually the true source of the possession-economy.


In their most functional form, ‘rights’ are a kind of ‘declaration of desired outcome’ – though without giving any indication of how we might arrive at that desired outcome. So far so good – probably – but it becomes dysfunctional very quickly if anyone starts to believe that providing the conditions in which those ‘rights’ are achieved is solely ‘Somebody Else’s Problem‘. This leads to a downward spiral in which we see more and more specious assertions that¬†we have rights, whilst others – such as the mysterious, seemingly-omnipotent yet always-indefinite ‘They’ – have the sole responsibility for providing us with our rights.

In other words, it’s not so much that we claim to have ‘rights’, but that we claim to have the absence of responsibilities.

Each ‘right’ is a claim that someone else is responsible, someone else is to blame – but not us. We expect – in fact demand – the outcomes that would arise from interlocking mutual responsibilities; but we refuse to accept the necessary mutuality of those responsibilities, or even¬†to acknowledge our own responsibilities at all.

If that was actually the case throughout a society – perfect selfishness, perfect absence of mutuality – then the society could not function at all. In practice, it limps along as an increasingly-severe paediarchy, where selfishness is actively rewarded, and responsibility in almost any form is actively punished. Slowly yet surely, the disincentives for responsibility pile up until the society is in danger of collapse – yet because ‘rights’ are deemed to be the basis of the society, the centrality of selfishness itself can never be challenged. The only remaining option is try to put in some kind of ‘rules’ that supposedly apply to everyone: and yet because the ‘rights’ have primacy, and the reality of Chaos Department means that there’s always some circumstance that doesn’t fit the rule, there will almost always be a way to find some exception, some loophole, in order to continue to evade that responsibility and offload it onto others instead. (In mainstream economics this is referred to as ‘externalities‘.)¬†The result is that any rights-based model slowly suffocates in an ever-expanding morass of would-be law that tries to plug every possible loophole and anticipate every eventuality – an endeavour which by definition can never succeed. The notion that “ignorance is no defence within the law” is patently absurd when the law itself runs to thousands upon thousands of pages every year, such that even full-time specialist cannot keep up with all the changes. And in the meantime, the social structure falls ever deeper into a spiral of destruction and self-destruction…

For anyone who’s actually looked in any depth at the histories and economics of different cultures over the past few millennia or so, this picture should be frighteningly familiar: there is no means by which a rights-based society can be made sustainable. It can’t be done. Period.

A rights-based model actively supports childish self-centredness, and actively penalises altruism, social mutuality and mature responsibility. It’s not just that rights need to be balanced by responsibilities: the very notion of rights itself will create this imbalance, every time. Given the nature of human nature, that’s what a rights-based model will always do: and it always leads to the slow, painful, chaotic death of the respective society.


I’m well aware that the notion of ‘rights’ itself is close to a sacred item of faith for both the political-left and political-right, and probably many in the middle-ground of politics too. But unfortunately the blunt reality is that a Bill of Rights is a declaration of societal suicide – and there’s no possible way round that fact. If we are to have any chance of survival as a society, or even as a species, that whole concept of ‘rights’ has got to go. Completely. Permanently. Gone. Finito.

A possession-based economy will kill us all. Possession will kill us all. Rights will kill us all. So I’m sorry, but there really is no other way to put it but this:

There are no rights. In any form. Anywhere. Ever. For anyone.

There are no rights.

To find something that does work, we need to come back to those other points we’ve seen earlier:

  • Rights are a social fiction; responsibilities are a (or the) social fact. Or, to put it another way round, rights are imaginary, responsibilities are real.
  • Mutuality implies mutual responsibility. The society can only succeed when those responsibilities are fully mutual: hence there is no ‘They’, there is only ‘Us’.
  • Mutuality implies mutual responsibility: and blame – whether of others, or of self – is itself an evasion of responsibility.¬†Since everyone is responsible, there is no space for blame: instead, each ‘failure’ represents, for everyone, an opportunity to learn, to improve responsibility as ‘response-ability’.
  • A purported ‘right’ is, at best, a declaration of a desired outcome, but without indicating how that outcome will be achieved.

Which (at last?) is where we start to change ‘rights’ into responsibilities:

  • Every ‘right’ can be expressed (and arguably must be expressed) in terms of the mutual responsibilities that are needed to deliver the desired outcome.
  • In each case, the defined responsibilities demonstrably must be mutual – otherwise we automatically fall back into the slow suicide of paediarchy.
  • The only defensible form of non-mutuality is when there are differing degrees of ‘response-ability’ – the ability to choose appropriate responses to the context. Children, the elderly, disabled or infirm are some examples of ‘diminished responsibility’. Any inappropriate claim of ‘diminished responsibility’ indicates another attempted form of paediarchy.

One of the main aims of a rights-based model is to create non-mutuality of responsibilities. Hence in transitioning from a rights-based model to a responsibility-based one, we can expect to see many such asymmetries of mutuality. And we can expect fierce attacks each we challenge them, too: but it must be done – otherwise, again, we fall back into promoting and protecting paediarchy, which is not a good idea.

The worst examples of this – and the most aggressively-defended, too – are when the purported ‘rights’ are inherently asymmetric, asserting that some selected (or, usually, self-selected) group has an inherent ‘right’¬†to priority and privilege over all others. We see this, for example, in domains such as purported women’s rights (whilst actively denigrating any validity that there might might be equivalent ‘men’s rights’), or the ‘rights’ of the wealthy to avoid paying taxes (whilst deriding those who have in effect been stolen from, as ‘the undeserving poor’), or the ‘right’ of the poor to welfare (whilst demanding that an unspecified ‘Other’ should pay for it and/or provide it), or the right to health (ditto), or the right to education (ditto), or the right of access to telecommunications (ditto), or the right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ (ditto), or the chaotic cacophony of victims’ rights versus accuseds’ rights versus judicial rights versus the right to silence versus the right to surveillance versus the right to sousveillance and so on that dominate the shambles that is the so-called ‘justice’-system. In every single case, every one of the desired outcomes of ‘rights’ can be achieved far more effectively by reframing the context in terms of mutual responsibilities – and in each case, doing so will highlight the dishonesties of those so-defended asymmetries, and eventually enforce their dismantling, and the return to true mutuality. This is the only way that will work in real-world practice.

Let’s take just one of those examples: the highly contentious area of so-called ‘women’s rights’. At its most dysfunctional – and there’s a lot of serious dysfunctionality in that domain and its ‘rights-discourse’ – much of it consists of attempts to enshrine in law an absence of responsibility for women, and/or an offloading of all responsibility for that context onto others (usually but not always men, and usually on the sole ground that they are¬†men). Societal mechanisms for resolution of domestic-violence, for example, have been crippled for decades by a¬†term-hijack that purports that all violence in the home is the sole fault and responsibility of men (hence, for example, the explicit asymmetry of the US ‘Violence Against Women Act’), when in fact¬†all of the reliable hard-data in the domain indicate a very high probability that both sexes are equally at fault. The blunt reality is that personal responsibility and personal power are inextricably interlinked: hence far from empowering women, this asymmetry actively disempowers them, trapping many into a passive ‘victim’ status, and denying to women the anger-management techniques and other services that would enable them to reach their own functional power. The resultant disempowerment of women is thus taken as further ‘proof’ that all of the dysfunctionality is the sole fault of men, reinforcing a downward spiral from which everyone loses.

Even the less-dysfunctional end of the ‘women’s rights’ discourse is riddled with fundamental errors and misunderstandings about the nature of rights and responsibilities, or even about nature itself. For example, the well-meant slogan “we demand the right / to walk the streets at night / without the fear of rape” is doomed to failure right from the start: fear is personal, not social, hence ‘freedom from fear’ is not something that anyone else can provide – and the demand that it should be otherwise is actually a serious form of societal other-abuse. It’s true that there are a few examples of ‘women’s rights’ that do sort-of make sense in practice: but in most cases those are best described as reasonable attempts at protection against others’ so-called ‘rights’ – hence, again, we’d actually be much better off dropping the rights-discourse altogether, and focussing instead on the mutuality of all of the respective societal and interpersonal responsibilities.

Again, I ought to emphasise that what I’ve said above about the ‘women’s rights’ domain is just one example of a generic problem: one example of how the right-discourse misleads us into creating structures that not only cannot work, but in most cases make the problems much, much worse, whilst at the same time preventing us from seeing why they don’t work. There are plenty of other examples of this: the exact same as above could be said, and a similar analysis done, for¬†so-called childrens’ rights, parents’ rights, workers’ rights, prisoners’ rights, patients’ rights, stockholders’ rights, in fact¬†every domain that purports to be entitled to any kind of ‘rights’. It’s not that ‘women’s rights’ doesn’t work, but that the concept of ‘rights’ itself does not work.

In practice, of course, there will always be asymmetries of responsibility in some form or other, simply because every context is different – requiring a different response – and every person has different ‘response-abilities’. But as long as we hold to the core principle of responsibility as mutual, social, symmetric ‘response-ability’, it does all work out over time, and/or across the whole social context, without requiring explicit rules to enforce it: this is a key idea behind concepts such as ‘pay it forward‘, for example.

Replacing spurious ‘rights’ with real and clearly-described responsibilities enables us to return to a real simplicity. Simplicity supports emergence; in turn, emergence supports a true simplicity. This has very important implications in practice. For example, simplicity combined with responsibility enables us to return to a primacy of ‘the spirit of the law’ over ‘the letter of the law’, in turn allowing us to return to a context in which the phrase ‘ignorance is no defence in the law’ can at last make practical sense. As a result, we can dispose of virtually all of the detail-laden dross of current legislation: vast legal tomes shrink down to simple core principles. And since blame is explicitly blocked as itself being a form of evasion of responsibility, we’re then able to move forward on practical processes of restitution and repair.

Another point is about property itself: a responsibility-based model of economics, as we can see in traditional responsibility-based legal systems such as many of the Australian Aboriginal models, does in fact have a very strong concept of personal property, and one that for most practical purposes¬†does closely resemble what we already have in a possession-based model. The big difference is that ownership is not based on ‘rights’ to exclude others, but a declared responsibility for the item itself (whatever that item may be). This is actually what we already use within business when we talk about project-owner or process-owner: all that we’re talking about here is extending the same principle across the whole of the economy. In reality, it’s nothing new, it’s what we already do in our families, in our homes, in neighbourhoods, in businesses and much else beside, for the simple reason that from long practical experience¬†we all know that it’s what works.

The catch, of course, is that to do this at a whole-economy scope would require a level of maturity which has been explicitly locked out of the mainstream culture for centuries, if not millennia: it’s not going to be an easy task, and there’s likely to be a vast amount of rearguard-action to attempt to cling on to the spurious ‘rights’ of ‘possession’. The fact that we know that possession doesn’t work is probably not going to make all that much difference, because the paediarchal ‘need’ for possession is not exactly rational anyway… Probably the only hope we have, despite the real urgency, is a slow, quiet process of education via practical example.

One of the best examples for this would be traffic law. The commonsense view of traffic-law is that it’s all based on ‘right of way‘. And in the US it may well be so – which to me at least would might why there’s so much emphasis on stop-signs in the US, because in practice the only way to make a rights-based model for traffic-management work is get people to stop at every possible point of conflict, so that they can then renegotiate who has ‘right of way’. (In my experience of US traffic, the most common solution to symmetric rights – i.e. identical priority in law – ends up being some variation of ‘might is right’…) But in British traffic-law, interestingly no-one ever has exclusive right-of-way. Instead, the entire law is structured around responsibility to give way. In practice, we end up with something looks almost identical to ‘right of way’ – but the huge difference is that¬†we know exactly how we get there, in terms of the intermesh of mutual responsibilities.

The simplicity of responsibilities means that there’s space for emergence – the real events that happen in real-world contexts. We give way at a stop-sign. We give way at a ‘Give Way’ sign (of course ūüôā ). We give way to traffic that’s already on a roundabout [US: rotary]. We give way at a red traffic light. All of those are obvious. But we are¬†also required to give way to traffic that could come through across us if we’re on a roundabout and can’t move because our exit is blocked by other traffic. We’re required to give way at a ‘box junction’ – in fact we shouldn’t enter the box at all if our exit isn’t clear, in case the lights change and the cross-traffic needs to come past. We give way at a green traffic-light to another vehicle that’s been stuck halfway across the lights; and we also give way there anyway if an emergency-vehicle needs to come through. We give way to other vehicles, stepwise – what the Germans call the ‘zipper-system’ – to allow other vehicles to filter in from a side-turning. We give way to cyclists and pedestrians, too. And we’ll also find quite a few examples where we may technically break the law – such as pulling part-way out at a red-light, or stopping and pulling over on a no-stop clearway – so as to give way to someone else who needs it (again, typically an emergency-vehicle). Above all of this is one simple over-riding principle: we are always responsible to give way if there’s any risk of collision – regardless of any other apparent ‘rule of the road’.¬†All of this works – and the traffic keeps flowing – precisely because no-one has exclusive right of way, ever.

Yet to make it work well – to make it work even better – as designers we need to do quite a lot of careful thinking. This is classic complexity-territory: find the patterns, identify the triggers that ‘make sense’ in practical terms, test and refine, test and refine. Yet we don’t plan, we don’t try to control: all we do is propose, and perhaps prune a little, provide a few suitable seed-conditions, and then carefully, quietly, respectfully, sit back and let the principles and the emergence work their own weird magic to give us what we need.

If you think this is unrealistic, think again: take a look at the real-world example of traffic-management described in Johnnie Moore’s blog-post ‘Self-organisation, traffic-lights and empathy‘. Watch the two videos there – especially the second one, which shows a real before-and-after at a notorious junction at Portishead, near Bristol in western England. Notice that wonderful dialogue-line right at the end of the second video: “Road capacity might be limited but empathy is boundless”. And notice what actually happens here: because once we drop the notion of ‘right of way’, we can remove all the clunky mechanisms that we have to put into place in order to manage the complications that are created by those misleading notions of ‘right of way’ – and the result is that everyone wins. Or, to put it the other way round, the inevitable result of ‘rights’ is that everyone loses – including the person who believes that they alone have ‘rights’.

So that’s the principle here: every time we come across any notion of ‘rights’, we look beneath those purported ‘rights’ for the real responsibilities that underpin them. We look for the mutuality that’s needed to make the responsibilities work in any real-world context – and find ways to repair the damage created by any existing non-mutualities.

It’s all very simple. Even in practice, it’s all very simple – and it makes everything much simpler. What it isn’t, though, is easy… in fact it’s usually downright hard, not least because of all of the intense emotional investment that currently exists in all of those imaginary ‘rights’ – even though they don’t work.

That’s our challenge, as enterprise architects, as business architects, as economists, as change-managers, as just plain ordinary everyday folk. Perhaps the most severe challenge we’ve ever had to face. Interesting, though, isn’t it? ūüôā

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