Abstraction: a Legislative Trap

One of the interesting things the human mind can do is to use abstractions. We can think and talk of carrots and crops. Carrots are real physical things. You can eat one. The word “Crops”, on the other hand, means plants grown to be harvested.”Crops” is an abstract idea that covers all kinds of things. But you can’t eat an idea.

It may seem silly to pry carrots and crops apart from one another when they are so closely related. However, there are important issues at stake here.

The Concrete Truth about Abstractions

An abstraction is actually a figment of our imagination, a convenient mental tool. The ability to think abstractly, to imagine a complex thing as a simple thing, is developed in early youth.1

There are at least three problems here:

  1. that abstractions simplify things by hiding their details, and,
  2. that when I use an abstract word, you have to imagine the details of what I am saying and you may imagine something totally different than what I am thinking, and,
  3. we have thousands of words that can be used as an abstraction or a concrete object. The word “label”, for example, is a concrete  object in “Put this label on your shirt” but it is an abstraction in “It is bigotry to put a label on someone.”

So using abstractions make communications fuzzy at best, and deceptive at worst.

Noah Webster Worried About Abstractions

Noah Webster was so concerned about the tendency of abstraction to hide reality that he learned 28 languages so he could understand the origins of words in their ancient context. “Even the use of words such as ‘the people,’ ‘democracy,’ and ‘equality’ in public debate bothered Webster, for such words were ‘metaphysical abstractions that either have no meaning, or at least none that mere mortals can comprehend.'”2
As we write laws and as we discuss politics and religion – always touchy topics – we must be careful to avoid these thought and communication traps. We can do that by being sure the details don’t get overlooked or assumed. Otherwise, we can get ourselves into trouble.

This is one of the differences between liberals and conservatives. Liberals often want laws that affect groups or classes of people, but conservatives want laws that protect individual rights. At least this seems to be a trend I see in our two major political parties. I would love to hear how you see that. You can comment below.

Abstractions Confuse the Nature of Human Rights

We often see confusion in discussions of human rights. If we stick to concrete things, then we see “inalienable”3 or “natural rights”. But if we are okay with abstractions, we can talk about a “right to adequate health care” or even the so-called “freedom from” rights.

Natural rights formed the foundation of our democratic republic so we need to understand them if we want to protect them. Arguments for rights based on abstractions may be unfounded so we must know how to tell the difference between a natural right and an assumed one.Click To Tweet

A quick review of natural rights seems in order here.

A “right” is a legal concept that describes the authority of its holder to act, and to not be prevented from action. The concept is, in itself, an abstraction, but natural rights are based solidly on objective reality as the following will show.

Natural Rights

So consider a stone. There are billions of these in our world. They are so common as to be ignored except when they are needed or until one intrudes our private space in an unwelcome way. So does a stone have the rights to take up space and to be heavy? Notice that you cannot deny those rights of the stone without destroying the stone. These are clearly inherent and inalienable rights because they cannot be separated from stones. You either have a stone with rights or you have neither. This simple fact is the key to remembering the essence and power of natural rights.

Then consider a tree. Does it have the right to mine the earth, block out sunlight and even to digest the stones to feed itself? Again, if you say no, you will kill the tree. It cannot fill the measure of its being without those rights.

Then there is the beaver who has the right to cut down the tree and use its branches for food and shelter. Deny those rights and the beaver cannot be a beaver. He may manage to survive, but only as a modified beaver.

Notice the beaver has many inalienable rights. Some of them are: freedom of personal movement, transportation and use of things, destruction and consumption of things, reproduction, cause substantial environmental impact (like the construction of lodges and dams), travel, contact and communication with beavers and other creatures, protection of self and family including use of violence, etc.

We can see many examples of “modified beavers” in our society. The native American Indian is an obvious one. It is a most fruitful thing to ask “What are the inalienable rights of man?” But that is a topic for another post on another day.

These are all obvious natural rights and every human being has even more powerful, inalienable rights. To deny those rights is to reduce man to something less than he is. It is to enslave, restrict, or even destroy his ability to use and fulfill his human being-ness.

Abstractions are a great time saver and are facilitators of thought, reason, communication and commerce. However, like any convenience, they have their price. In this case it is the loss of direct connection with reality and the danger that flawed logic may nevertheless sound great. We can see this in ideas like “right to health care” and “social justice”: abstractions based on abstractions.

Making Laws Based on Abstractions is Dangerous

Pondering Mascot Owl

In fact, it is difficult to figure out how many levels of abstraction lie between the concept of social justice and a citizen’s natural rights. It is no coincidence that the dictionary on my computer illustrates a proper usage of “social justice” this way: “individuality gives way to the struggle for social justice.” This could as well have read, “individual natural rights are violated in the struggle for social justice.”

In a similar fashion, abstract ideas like “right to an adequate standard of living” or “affordable housing” can lead one to conclusions that sound wonderful. But unless there is a very careful consideration of the realities behind those abstractions, such ideas can lead to trouble. It is not difficult to find many government programs based on abstract logic that produced results opposite of those intended.

The Deadly “Gun Free Zone”

The idea of “gun free zone” signs has to be one of the most obvious examples of this failure. The abstract idea is wonderful – so wonderful it hypnotized a lot of people. But the hard truth is that when a bad guy reads that sign, it says “no one here has a gun but me”. The fact that such doomed laws are even conceived is evidence of abstract thinking. That flawed thinking has lead to citizens losing all their rights, including the right to life itself.

Gun Free Zone Sign

The “minimum wage”, which administers the maximum penalty of unemployment upon many of its intended benefactors is another example. It is adopted as a way of lifting the poor and is easily defended while we think of the poor as a group or class (an abstraction). But when we consider the effect of that law on the individual (objective reality) we find that it has a tendency to destroy character by tempting him to think he is entitled to something he may not have earned.

Then if we consider the effect upon the employer, we see that the increased cost will motivate him to eliminate the job or combine it with another one, or whatever he can do to control his costs. Robots and self-checkout systems have, for example, received much encouragement from minimum wage laws. Worst of all, they are supposed to help those who are just getting started in life but they actually raise the threshold over which young people must rise. The effect is too often that they end up crossing the threshold of mom’s basement.

Legislation meant to guarantee or “protect” rights is also based on abstraction. It is enlightening to note that any law that attempts to do that for a class of creatures, will inherently and negatively impact the natural rights of those outside the class. This applies to mud minnows and human beings. A particularly grim example of this is when I am protected in my “right to not be offended”, my neighbors lose their freedom of speech.

Another example can be found in so-called anti-discrimination laws, which, by definition are themselves discriminatory. It is impossible to protect the rights of one class of citizens without violating the rights of the rest.

Bad laws born of abstract logic applied to abstractions is an ongoing, largely hidden, and perhaps heretofore unidentified problem with our legislative process. If we are to have good laws they must be based on hard logic that recognizes the hard rights of the individual citizen. It is well to use the efficiency that abstractions afford, but we must not allow them to damage our communications and mask reality.


“In language acquisition, children typically learn object words first, and then develop from that vocabulary an understanding of the alternate uses of such words.” Wikipedia, June 4, 2018, 6:25 AM, MDT

After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture, by Joseph J. Ellis, W.W. Norton, 2002.

Spelled “unalienable” in the Declaration of Independence.

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Jackson Pemberton

Jackson graduated with honors in Physics and Mathematics and in the top of his MBA class. He is the die-hard constitutionalist who wrote the bicentennial series “A New Message” for The Freeman magazine in 1976. He is presently writing the book Church and State, A Citizen's Guide and publishing as he writes it on the blog you are now reading.
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