The Declaration of The Rights of Man and of Citizens begins with a clear stipulation of intrinsic freedom and equality in every man. Equality, therefore, seems to be an appropriate place to begin. The Declaration defines our equality in relation to our rights, such that we are all born with the same entitlements and among them the right to perpetuate such rights throughout our lives.
Each and every one of us is entitled to the expression of the will of a community (which, according to Rousseau, is the collective will of the constituent individuals). In a similar light, the law is to regard each individual without bias; performing its duty of punishment or protection as justice sees fit. The sixth section of the declaration states that:
“All being equal in its sight, are equally eligible to all honours, places and employments, according to their different abilities, without any other distinction than that created by their virtues and talents.”
Effectually, this levels the metaphorical playing field, rightly empowers the skilful and the able while ensuring men are distinguished not by the colour of their skin, nor by their religion and neither by their wealth – but by their merits and abilities.
Unfortunately that has never been so. There are a plethora of sordid historical examples that contravene section VI. The apartheid, holocaust and slave trade are amongst the many historical events that have grossly violated the former section. Nepotism, racism, sexism and segregation still ail society and contribute to its atrophic senescence.
One audacious claim is that every man is innocent, until proven guilty by the law. The present Catholic Church disagrees, believing than everyone is born with the burden of original sin. It is not the only body that believes in immediate guilt, many states (including China) adopt a judicial system, which operates on a contrary principle: that every man is guilty until proven innocent by the law.
Each individual is entitled to his own opinions, their expression and their communication (regardless of content and context). The Declaration explicitly iterates that this is a man’s most “precious right” and can only be annulled when it threatens the public order. The law establishes the threat.
How exactly can you abuse the right of free speech? Who has the right to decide when freedom of speech is abused? A state may act unjustly towards the expression of politically or religiously sensitive opinions, as they may rouse widespread criticism and lead to an imbalance of governing power and authority. However, is it within the law’s rights to place the right to freedom of speech below its own interests? Such controversy is faced in places such as China and Russia. However, the uproar provoked by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden prove that the West cannot lay claims to an unmarred reputation of moral conduct.
Individual intrinsic equality is never defined with autonomy, since it is always bordered by the canons of the law. The Declaration seems to state that the power of the law transcends the rights of man, as it may decide what is within and excluded from such rights. It is given the power to distinguish and determine.
The Declaration defines the primary duty of the law as an “expression of the will of the community” and that the law should only “[prohibit actions that are hurtful to society]”. It decrees, “what is not prohibited by the law, should not be hindered” and “the law ought to impose no other penalties but such as are absolutely and evidently necessary”.
The law is detailed as the decision-making faculty in society, it has the power to imprison, accuse, arrest, apprehend and (the two most important powers) to determine the extent at which one man may secure the liberal exercise of his own rights and to establish when public order is breached or threatened.
So who deems what is “absolutely and evidently necessary”? Who holds the reins to the law? Shouldn’t the law be separate from the normal man, should it not occupy a different order of sovereignty? What gives another man the power to wield the scales of the law, is he superior to any other man that he may decide his counterpart’s fate? Who has the prerogative to empower another man with the sword and shield of the law?
According to the declaration, “all citizens have a right…either personally, or by their representatives, in its formation”. So the populace, by right, has power over the law, which in turn, by right, has power over the populace.
Ideally, this ascertains the equality of power. A cyclic system where the law changes with the people and adjusts itself accordingly as the essence of man itself changes; where any change in the attitudes of the people is reflected in a change in the law. Equilibrium is, therefore, maintained and this allows elasticity and exposes duality in the expression of power.
This is by no means a moral system. By this definition, the law is as fickle as man and serves as an inadequate canon, an imitation canon to reassure us that we are a moral and just society. Though the Declaration implores the equal distribution of law, all being equal in its sight, it has managed to allow the atrocities committed in the past. The witch hunts, slave trade, oppression of women, exploitation of children and the inquisition are merely a few events where the latter section of the clause (“[the law] should be the same to all”) has been unpardonably violated.
Is this the fault of the people? No, the fault lies with the educated lawmakers, the “representatives”.
The Declaration mentions lawmakers (or “representatives”) and their sole duty to express the will of the citizen. They are effectively the mouthpiece of the populace and are crucial for succinct communication between power and the people. In modern society, this role is prevalent in the majority of democratic states in the form of: Members of Parliament in the UK, Senators in the US and LegCo members in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the representative role can be held responsible for neglecting its duties and promulgating laws in favour of the upper echelons of society throughout history.
The Church is one of the main perpetrators, abusing its influence and power to serve its own needs or requirements. It can be held directly responsible for the frenzied witch-hunts, the inquisition and the violent reformation, which are some of the darkest events in history. Wealthy plantation owners all over the world perpetuated the slave trade, since their operations were extremely labour intensive and extensively profit orientated. Plantations could not profit if workers were to be paid and treated fairly; therefore requiring underpaid and exploitable workers.
Since the role of a representative is conventionally a caste specific role, it is nearly impossible for a member of the “people” to ascend to this position. Therefore the role of a lawmaker is somewhat disconnected from the people and is, perhaps, inadvertently stifling the voice of the people.
The representative has, of course, the same (equal) rights of the people and therefore is entitled to ambition. Though their duty is to represent and express the will of the people, it is – rather understandably – second only to their personal desires and demands. Self-satisfaction is ingrained within every single complex organism on this planet, so it is only natural to pursue your own interests and seek your own ends.
However, those with power (and above all representatives and lawmakers) have the means to meet their ends. The mere possession of power is corruptive and addictive. Those in the upper classes of society will, at the very least, strive to remain in the rung they nestle in; fearing a relegation to a lower status. Many will desire to advance and climb further from the people and manipulate the resources available to them in order to do so. Yet, it is the privileged that possess such resources or have access to certain opportunities that allow them to advance and the unprivileged that don’t, thereby consolidating caste preservation and setting the cyclic nature of disparity in place. This is where the voice of the people is lost in transmission.
This is evident in the American taxation scheme, where the wealthy benefit from certain policies that permits income to be classified otherwise and thereby avoiding the maximum rate of taxation. The Republican Party immortalizes these policies, as it contributes to their socio-economic preservation.
What seems not to be apparent is that there is no need to abuse power. The correct expression of power and fair distribution can only bring about what the Declaration suggests: a level playing field. It would encourage a Darwinian model of progression, where the socio-economic advance and preservation of an individual is reliant on performance, ability, talent, skill and virtue.
It is necessary, according to the declaration, for a common contribution. This is for the “support of the public force, and for defraying the other expenses of government”. The declaration states that this common contribution ought to be “divided equally” amongst all “according to their abilities”. The former of the statements still rings true today and is the only thing reputed to be certain (apart from death). The latter stipulation, regrettably, has not.
Internationally most citizens are taxed on their income, on the goods they purchase and the money they inherit. Yet no system of taxation is truly fair, as the law affords disproportionate contribution and means of evading certain taxation.
This is most evident in America, where many high net worth investors pay a smaller percentage of their income than their middle class, working counterparts. This is achieved through exploiting the capital gains tax and the carried interest tax. As a result of such exploitation, Warren Buffet only paid a combined tax rate of 17.4% in 2010, where less affluent Americans contributed up to 45% of their income to the government. The declaration stipulates that “common contribution” should be divided “equally among members of the community according to their abilities”. A merit and ability based taxation scheme is fair and just.
So how should a population be taxed (if they are to be taxed on ability)? Taxing on the basis of income seems not to work. Perhaps the rate of tax should be varied by age or perhaps determined by occupation (seeing as occupation is decided by ability).
A problem that arises is that this would discourage hard work and penalize success. Thus resulting in a population hesitant to use their abilities and work to their full capacity.