My rights are limited when they conflict with yours.
For example, my right to acquire more property is limited by every other person’s right to the minimum income and property they need to provide basic food, clothing, shelter, education and health care to their families.
That means employers must pay their workers enough for them to live on. If they are producing or selling anything, then its price must be enough to pay a minimum wage to the workers who produced it, but not too expensive for customers who want to buy the goods. Think of food; the one who grows it and the one who buys it both need enough to feed his family.
Mahatma Gandhi said â€œthe earth can provide for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.â€ If my greed deprives you of what you need, sooner or later we will come into conflict and everyone suffers from that.
Affordable for all
Some goods are so important that nobody should be allowed to make a private profit for himself out of them. Nobody should be deprived of water because they can’t pay. Water, electricity, basic fuel for cooking and for heating homes, whether paraffin or gas or wood, should be affordable for all.
That means their production and distribution should not be left to private companies, that have to maximise profit to keep their shareholders happy, but they should be managed by public authorities answerable directly to the people. Since costs still need to be covered, it is reasonable for those who can pay more should pay for the poor to be subsidised.
Some insist that the government should own all these public services, but we should beware of giving anyone, even government, too much power. The risk in a capitalist system is that free economic competition leads to inequality, with some individuals becoming rich and powerful enough to disregard the rest of us, which makes government regulation necessary.
The risk of a communist system is that a government that takes power in the name of the workers will have so much control that it succumbs to the temptations of power â€“ and power does corrupt almost everyone.
Power is shared
The answer seems to lie somewhere in the middle. European social democracies did reduce inequality and keep public authorities accountable to the people.
Another important way of limiting the abuse of power is to limit its concentration. In a dictatorship like ours, all power is concentrated in the hands of the top leader. Everyone is afraid to do anything that might look like a challenge to that power â€“ and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Any human society remains free and human in as far as power is shared. One important principle is to ensure that officials at every level should be as independent as they can be without wrecking the system. The higher levels should not concern themselves with doing things or taking responsibilities that can be well enough exercised at a lower level.
That way far more people feel a share in responsibility for the way the whole society runs. Perhaps more important, everyone feels his or her contribution is important and so they are more ready to cooperate with others. If power-sharing was part of how things work, no-one would feel the desperate need to show how much they have, usually by stopping other people from doing their jobs.
We’ve all seen someone who only controls the bathroom key or the supply of office pencils can, and often feel they must, make life uncomfortable for everyone else.
That’s not all my vision yet; more, and maybe bigger things, next week.