小北的不老歌

The Last Train Ride

Today’s train ride from Chicago to Ann Arbor was very uneventful. The train was late again, as usual, and there weren’t that many people on the train. I watched the movie “Transformer” on my laptop to kill the first two hours and gazed at the flat Michigan land for the remaining four.

This is probably going to be my last Chicago-Ann Arbor train ride. Sometimes I wonder as the train passes by casinos, junkyards and blighted neighborhoods that dot the vast undeveloped landscape: is the Midwest a symbol that the U.S. is losing important ground in the fierce global competition after nearly a century of dominance, or is it indication that there is still much untapped potential that could one day prove to be the crucial reserve that European and Asian countries don’t have after thousands of years of intensive development?

The class that I appreciate the most this semester is, surprisingly, Chinese legal history. Not because it taught me so much about Chinese legal history proper (it did), but because putting things in a comparative context has shed some light yet raised many questions for me. If the Confucian orthodoxy is built on a system of duties and a network of respect, isn’t it intuitively more attractive and viable as a social construct than the “every man for himself” idea that underlies the Judeo-Christian natural rights theory? If everyone focuses on insisting that their God-given rights not be infringed rather than on carrying out their obligations (or denying that there is any obligation from the individual to the state at all), wouldn’t the society descend into chaotic interpersonal or inter-factional disputes as Confucius has famously predicted? It’s almost a miracle that a society built on natural rights has functioned well, and I don’t know how to reconcile Confucius’s worry with the Western reality.

But here’s a try. I remember two things from ECON101. One, individuals are rational actors that seek to maximize their individual utility, and two, somehow there is this “invisible hand” behind the market that makes it efficient — a market consisting of people who, paradoxically, care only about the maximization of their own gains rather than social optimality. From these two premises flowed the laissez-faire economic principles, but then in ECON201 we were taught that laissez-faire economics doesn’t really work all that well, and that government intervention is often necessary to do what the invisible hand is incapable of. If rudimentary economics can have any application to my crude understanding of politics, it would be that societies that subscribe to the notion of sacred and inviolable individual natural rights must also depend on some kind of “invisible hand” principle to function, because the individual rights protection need to somehow translate into collective societal progress. But I wonder how far this analogy can be taken.

In any event, I have still have trouble accepting that people are born with natural rights, after this many years of hearing it. I find it easier to believe that rights are artificial creations of human beings or as social contracts among them, not some divine bestowment from above or encoded in our DNA. I also find it easier to accept that rights protection should be utilitarian in nature: it is a means to an end–the end being to encourage human flourishing and to prevent human suffering. When protection of rights become an end in itself, haven’t we lost sight of the failure of laissez faire economics and the rising dominance of the regulatory state, even in the U.S.?