Posts tagged with: rights

rightstalkAre you sick to death of hearing about the recent Hobby Lobby contraceptive mandate kerfuffle? Me too. Yes, it’s one of the most important religious liberty cases in decades. But the constant debates about the case on blogs, newspapers, TV, radio, and social media, has left even those of us concerned about freedom beaten and exhausted. Besides, what is left to discuss? Is there really anything new that can be said?

Surprisingly, the answer seems to be “yes, there is.”

Earlier this week Megan McArdle wrote one of the most insightful articles I’ve read on the issue (and I’ve read enough about it to make my eyes bleed). McArdle outlines three points that frame the debate and lead us into bitter disagreements:
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jeff20th Century historian Dumas Malone praised Thomas Jefferson as the exemplar of liberty. “To all who cherish freedom and abhor tyranny in any form, [Jefferson] is an abiding hope that springs eternal,” declared Malone. Jefferson crafted our creed as Americans and once wrote, “Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man.”

In the April issue of Carolina Journal, I review Long Journey with Mr. Jefferson. You can read the review on page 20 of the issue in PDF form. The book, which is a biography of Dumas Malone, was an enlightening read on a scholar who spent decades studying Thomas Jefferson. His six-volume biography of the author of the Declaration of Independence, titled Jefferson and His Times, spanned from 1948-1981. Malone received the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 and Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.

While I haven’t read all of Malone’s volumes, the biography piqued my interest because of the complexity of studying Jefferson and the lengthy duration Malone spent on one man. One of the points I made at the end of the review was the stark contrast Malone provides to an American society that is becoming increasingly ignorant of not just its history, but the meaning and nature of our rights. Studying Jefferson is essential. It’s a great introduction into the whole ethos of the limiting of state power and especially elevating an important truth, that governments gain their legitimacy by their ability to protect the rights that predate government.

Earlier this month I attended the First Kuyper Seminar, “Economics, Christianity & The Crisis: Towards a New Architectonic Critique,” in Amsterdam.

One of the papers presented was from Jan Jorrit Hasselaar, who discussed the inclusion of non-human entities into democratic deliberation in his talk, “Sustainable Development as a Social Question.” I got the impression (this is my analogy, not Hasselaar’s) that there was some need for a kind of tribune (for plants instead of plebeians), who would speak up for the interests of those who could not speak for themselves.

The framing of the issue of the dignity of animals, plants, and the natural environment more broadly connected the integration of these interests into our public discourse as analogous to the civil rights revolutions concerning race and sex in the West over the previous century. The following video makes an argument in similar terms:

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20120528-091603.jpgLast week I wondered about the student protests here in Quebec and the logic of the welfare state. In some conversations on these topics, I was challenged to consider the social meaning of phenomena like this (e.g. public protests of one kind or another). I’ll have some more to say about that later this week, I think, but for now, I think that it is true that from a certain point of view, regardless of the merits of an individual case or instance, the right to assemble, associate, protest, and campaign for a particular viewpoint is one of the curious strengths of modern democracies.

It’s a point especially worth considering on Memorial Day in the United States. The Transom (a fine publication that is well-worth its subscription price) passed along comments from this past February, delivered by Lt. Gen. John Kelly, USMC, Senior Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, to the Gold Star parents. The whole thing is worth reading on and reflecting on in full. But these lines stuck out to me in particular:

And you know that any one of them could have done something more self-serving with their lives as the vast majority of their age group elected to do after high school and college, but no, they chose to serve knowing full well a brutal war was in their future. They did not avoid the most basic and cherished responsibility of a citizen — the defense of country — they welcomed it.

Our kids were the best of the best of their generation, and in their unselfishness put every American ahead of themselves. All are heroes for simply stepping forward, and our people owe a debt they can never fully pay. Their reward for service is the legacy they left behind: selfless valor, the Country we live in, and the freedoms so many take for granted.

What are the freedoms we so often take for granted? They include the right to peaceful demonstration (a key word here being peaceful). This is a right that is respected and fought for by those who may not share the sentiments of those who demonstrate or protest. This is a feature of public space in much of the developed world that is unique to modern democracies: the rights of minority viewpoints to make their case in a public forum.

Indeed, a very common sentiment you’ll hear from military service members is something like this: “I don’t agree with you, but I’ll fight and defend your right to disagree.”

From this perspective, then, even something as morally odious as the demonstrations of the Westboro Baptist Church, and certainly more mundane demonstrations like those of disaffected students, are unintended testimonies to the sacrifices of those that have served, suffered, and died in military service. In the case of Westboro, the very soldiers that the protesters use as an occasion for grandstanding have sacrificed to protect the protesters’ right to be so greatly mistaken.

This, I think, is something worth remembering this Memorial Day.

A popular citation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s justly-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is his reference to natural law and Thomas Aquinas:

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

The Witherspoon Institute has announced today its project, “Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism,” which “will serve as an online resource center for students, teachers, and educated citizens to learn about the intellectual traditions of natural law and natural rights, particularly within American political and constitutional history.”

The current list of essays by contributors is expansive and impressive, and includes an essay by Acton’s own director of research Sam Gregg, “Natural Law and the Law of Nations.” Be sure to check out this resource from the Witherspoon Institute. I’m eager to see how the site develops and grows. I’m also interested in seeing who will write the currently missing essay (or set of essays) on the Reformation and natural law (including modern Protestantism and natural law). Sigmund’s essay currently covers the period, but much more needs to be said.

Currently the “Early Modern Liberal Roots of Natural Law” primary source section includes Locke, Hobbes, and Montesquieu. This is of course an important stream of natural-law thinking in the early modern era, but hardly the only one and certainly not the only one with later influence.

Additionally, to be of more scholarly use, I think the primary source collection should point toward digitally-accessible forms. I talk about this in the context of theology and economics in an editorial in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Printed Source and Digital Resource in Economics and Theology” (PDF), and point especially towards the example of the Post-Reformation Digital Library (see, for instance, the pages on Locke and Hobbes).

I’m becoming more and more convinced that the talk of health care as a ‘right’ is so vague as to border on willful and culpable obfuscation. I certainly advocate a rich and complex description of ‘rights’ talk, such that simply calling something a ‘right’ doesn’t end the ethical or political discussion. Some ‘rights’ are more fundamental and basic than others, and various ‘rights’ require things of various actors.

But when it is asserted that access to health care is a ‘right,’ what precisely is the claim? Is it analogous to the claim that access to food and water, too, are rights? Very often these rights are equated in contemporary discussions: food and water, shelter, and health care.

One the one hand, however, it’s very odd to assert that health care, at least as practiced in its modern form (with X-ray machines and flu shots) is a right, at least in the sense that it is something that the human person qua person has a claim upon. If that’s the case, then all those millions of people who lived before the advent of the CAT scan were all the while having their rights ‘denied’ them (whether by God, fate, cosmic chance, or oppressive regimes bent upon keeping us from advancing medical technologies). It would also follow that all of those living today without access to these advanced technologies, simply by basis of their geographical and cultural location, are having their rights similarly denied. (This raises the troubling implication, not to be explored in any detail here, that the debate about health care in the industrial and post-industrial West amounts to a series of tantrums by the coddled and privileged about the requisite level of health care, which by any standard already dwarfs what is available to the global poor, who do not have access to what has the best claim upon ‘rights’ talk, even the most basic health care services.)

This raises the further question, if it be granted that health care is in some sense a right (which I am not opposed to granting), “What precisely does that right entail?” Clearly we can’t mean, in the context of the history of humankind, that this is a right to arthroscopic surgery or titanium hip replacement. That would be a bit like saying my right to food means that I have a claim to eating filet mignon. Just because someone else can afford to eat filet mignon doesn’t mean that my right to not starve gives me a similar claim upon filet mignon.

Similarly, just because some people can afford the greatest medical care available in the history of humankind (whether by the providence of God, fate, or cosmic chance), it doesn’t follow that I have a right to health care in that particular form. My basic claim to health care merely on the basis of my humanity is something more like the right to ramen noodles than it is to filet mignon.

This only describes what I am due by rights. It’s the least that’s required by the standards of justice.

And what might love require? “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.”

History shows us that civil rights can exist as nothing more than legal fiction. Take, for example, the right to vote. Although suffrage was extended to African-Americans under the Constitution in 1870, that right was little more than a nice idea until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. With many activists and politicians calling for America to recognize the “right” to health care, it is well worth looking at what this means. Making promises that cannot be met is a betrayal of the public trust, and the integrity of the government depends on its ability to hold to its word. In many other economically-developed countries, the “right” to health care coverage exists, and nearly everyone is enrolled in some sort of insurance or public plan. Unfortunately, coverage is not the same as health care procedures. Many governments insure nearly everyone, but cannot deliver the health care that those insured people need. These governments leave a broken promise in the place of the right that exists in their laws.

Take serious diseases, for example. Although Great Britain professes to treat health care as a right, there is no right to an oncologist. In fact, John Goodman of the Cato Institute reports that only 40% of British cancer patients even see an oncologist. This has had devastating results on their health: 70% more cancer patients in Great Britain die than in the United States. In addition, wait times for free health care in that country are so extreme that 20% of colon cancer cases diagnosed as curable are incurable by the time treatment is available. Great Britain is not the only country that falls short when it comes to treating major health problems. The Heritage Foundation recently created a laundry list of places where Americans, despite lacking the “right” to treatment, still have better health outcomes than other countries with universal health care: “Breast cancer mortality is 52 percent higher in Germany than in the United States, and 88 percent higher in the United Kingdom. Prostate cancer mortality is 604 percent higher in the U.K. and 457 percent higher in Norway. The mortality rate for colorectal cancer among British men and women is about 40 percent higher. Breast cancer mortality is 9 percent higher, prostate cancer is 184 percent higher and colon cancer mortality among men is about 10 percent higher (in Canada) than in the United States.” Whether it is cancer, pneumonia, heart disease, or AIDS, Americans have better chances at surviving than Europeans and Canadians. If enshrining a right to health care in the law only eases consciences and not human suffering, then it is a lie on the part of government.

One of the major reasons for America’s advantage in treating major diseases is that our patients have far more access to modern medical technology and diagnostic procedures than other countries. The Heritage report shows that Americans are more likely to get mammograms, pap smears, colonoscopies, and PSA tests than Canadians. Americans have better access to drugs than Europeans: “44 percent of Americans who could benefit from statins, lipid-lowering medication that reduces cholesterol and protects against heart disease, take the drug. That number seems low until compared with the 26 percent of Germans, 23 percent of Britons, and 17 percent of Italians who could both benefit from the drug and receive it. Similarly, 60 percent of Americans taking anti-psychotic medication for the treatment of schizophrenia or other mental illnesses are taking the most recent generation of drugs, which have fewer side effects. But just 20 percent of Spanish patients and 10 percent of Germans receive the most recent drugs.” We also have far more CT scanners, dialysis machines, and MRI machines than Europeans and Canadians, despite the fact that the first two pieces of technology were developed in Great Britain. Here again, the abstract right to health care does not translate into meeting the needs of the sick. It is far more honest and humane to establish a system that delivers health care than to write laws that promise it.

Waiting for necessary procedures also has a lethal toll on the populations of Europe and Canada. Greenwood writes that, “During one 12-month period in Ontario, Canada, 71 patients died waiting for coronary bypass surgery while 121 patients were removed from the list because they had become too sick to undergo surgery with a reasonable chance of survival.” The Canadian Supreme Court recognized this problem. Overturning Quebec’s ban on private health insurance, Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin stated: “The evidence shows that, in the case of certain surgical procedures, the delays that are the necessary result of waiting lists increase the patient’s risk of mortality or the risk that his or her injuries will become irreparable. The evidence also shows that many patients on non-urgent waiting lists are in pain and cannot fully enjoy any real quality of life.” Any time that a “right” to health care means artificially lowering or eliminating its costs, there will be too much demand for too few services. There is nothing moral about a system that trades in real efficiency and comfort for imagined equality.

Even where America does recognize the right of the poor and the elderly to health care, it tends to restrict rather than liberate the sick, as Sue Blevins documented in 2003: “Before Medicare was passed, seniors were promised that the program would not interfere with their choice of insurance. However, existing rules force most seniors to rely on Medicare Part A to pay their hospital bills — even if they can afford to pay for private insurance. Additionally, today’s seniors and doctors must abide by more than 100,000 pages of Medicare rules and regulations dictating what types of services are covered or not under the program.” Even the privacy and family rights of patients in the “care” of the government are violated in the name of the right to health care: “Under Medicare rules established in 1999, patients receiving home health care are required to divulge personal medical, sexual, and emotional information. Government contractors — mainly home health nurses — are directed to record such things as whether a senior has expressed ‘depressed feelings’ or has used ‘excessive profanity.’ If seniors refuse to share medical and lifestyle information, their health care workers are required to act as proxies. This means total strangers will be permitted to speak for seniors.” Rights cannot contradict each other. The “right” to health care means a loss of the rights to privacy, family, and consumer choice. This is no right at all.

Health care is not a right. Since we have such a murky understanding of what rights are in today’s world, many governments still pretend that it is, only to see increased regulation and bureaucracy stifle the delivery of good care. Outdated technology, rationing of time and services, and intrusive government follow the “right” to health care. Declaring health care to be a right puts it under the government’s supervision. Unfortunately, health care itself can never be a right. Coverage might be, as evidenced by how many countries have insurance rates near 100%, but there are still limited health care resources out there. The best that we can do is to let them be distributed in the most efficient way possible, which remains the free market. Trying to follow in the steps of Europe and Canada by making health care a civil right is a nice intention, but it will never amount to anything more than another broken promise by the government.

One of Pope Benedict XVI’s great emphases in his new social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, is the idea of gift. A gift is something that we have received without earning. As the Pope wisely notes, “The human being is made for gift,” even though man is often “wrongly convinced that he is the sole author of himself, his life and society.”

The truth is that we are not the authors of our own lives. We did not earn or create the conditions that make our lives what they are. We did not merit our genetic code, and we are not worthy of the parents that we had growing up. Neither do we have ourselves to thank for our societies and the opportunities that they hold. To some degree, hard work, creativity, and self-cultivation can enable us to better ourselves and our lives. That this is even the case is not because of our own efforts, though. We are not the reason that merit can lead to success.

We live lives gifted to us in a world gifted to us by God. God is not random, and He has reasons for giving each of us the gifts that He has. We do not by any means know what those reasons are much of the time, but we can use our reason to search for them. Reason shows us that we as humans are social beings, meant to live in coexistence with one another and to seek the common good and the wellbeing of everyone. The gift of our lives and our own particular gifts are meant to benefit the whole of humanity and not just ourselves. As Caritas in Veritate puts it, gift “takes first place in our souls as a sign of God’s presence in us, a sign of what he expects from us.” Gift, then, is the basis for duty. We have not earned what we have and are or the world in which we live; therefore, we do not have license or entitlement over our gifts. We have duties to use them for the common good.

What, then, is the best way to organize society such that the gifts given to each are used for the benefit of all? One possibility is to empower a central authority to identify the gifts of each person, then to have that authority determine how we are to use our gifts. This is the totalitarian tendency, the desire for an authority to have total control over the resources gifted to persons and to all people. (more…)

Blog author: hunter.baker
posted by on Friday, November 21, 2008

The latest issue of Religion & Liberty contains an essay I wrote for Acton about whether the relationship between social conservatives and libertarians can be saved. A student at my university (Houston Baptist University) read the essay and formulated a number of thoughts on his own. I was so affected by what this undergraduate sent me, I had to pass it along:

I have strong beliefs about limited government, states rights, individual liberty, free-markets, etc. But these beliefs come under fire when I see how one person’s pornography addiction leads to rape after years of unsatisfiable self-gratification, or when innocent children are born fatherless to promiscuous mothers.

There are 2 things I’ve come to realize. First, that every law is a removal of liberty. Second, that every system of law is either based upon the will of man, or based on that which we perceive to be Natural Law. Given this reality, the latter necessitates a belief in higher power, while the former holds no basis for the concept of “inalienable rights” whatsoever.

Without a giver of freedom the only “freedom” is that which is given by he who is stronger to he who is weaker.

Libertarian belief in liberty is founded in the idea that we have a God-given right to such liberty, and in that sense they share commonality with social conservatives.

But Liberty without order is chaos. There’s no doubt, law in our land is based on Natural Law. So the question is not whether we should legislate morality, but to what extent it should be done.

This is a question I still struggle to answer.

The young man’s name is Wesley Gant. I suspect this is the kind of thinking that regularly emerges from students who attend Acton events and/or read Acton publications.

Earlier this week the Detroit News reported (HT: Pew Forum) that supporters of Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and Republican candidate for this election’s presidential nomination, would be meeting with representatives of John McCain in the key swing state of Michigan. Among the “battleground” states, Obama holds his largest lead in the polls here in Michigan (RCP average of +3.2).

The purpose of yesterday’s meetings was ostensibly to urge McCain to pass over Mitt Romney as a possible running mate, in the interests of courting social conservatives. Debra Matney, a Huckabee supporter from Fairgrove who helped organize the meetings, said of McCain, “Who he chooses will speak volumes to us.”

It’s unclear, however, what effect meetings of this kind might have, as an interview with McCain published yesterday in the Weekly Standard has McCain saying that he would not rule out a pro-choice running mate like Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge.

That fact alone ought to speak volumes to social conservatives.

Meanwhile, since his withdrawal from the presidential race, Mike Huckabee has done his best to remain in the national conversation. In a recent interview with Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Huckabee had this to say about the tension in the GOP between social and fiscal conservatism:

Wallis: You’ve talked about public responsibility alongside personal responsibility to overcome poverty. What’s a proper role for government?

Huckabee: One of the things I’m frustrated about is that Republicans have been infiltrated by hardcore libertarians. Traditional Republicans don’t hate all forms of government. They just want it to be efficient and effective. They recognize that it has a place and a role.

Growing numbers of people in the Republican Party are just short of anarchists in the sense that they basically say, “Just cut government and cut taxes.” They don’t understand that if you do that, there are certain consequences that do not help problems. It exacerbates them.

Every law and every government program we have is a direct indictment and reflection that somewhere we’ve failed at the personal level to self-govern. The ideal world is where everybody self-governs and lives by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” If we all abided by that, we would need no other law. No one would hurt anybody. Nobody would get drunk. Nobody would abuse the speed limits. Nobody would drop out of school. It would be a great world. Unfortunately it doesn’t work quite like that.

I go to a church that feeds a whole lot of people. Some kids still slip through the cracks that my church or somebody else’s isn’t getting to. I could be an ideological purist and say, “That’s not government’s responsibility.” But I’m also a realist, and when all of the other social structures fail—whether family, neighborhood, community, or charity organizations—then we have by default created a demand for government to step in.

I get beat up for this terribly by the libertarians in the party. I call them libertarians and not conservatives, because I think I’m a conservative but I’m not a nut! They ask me if I want government to engage in all these social programs. No, it’s not my preference. But if my choice is that government has a program or a kid goes hungry, then give me the government program. I prefer that over a hungry child. I prefer that over a child that’s wheezing through untreated asthma.

If people out of generosity can do this beyond the scope of government, praise the Lord! But when they don’t, then it’s no different than all the nice conservatives in the gated neighborhoods who really don’t want any government until their home is broken into and they call 911. That’s a call to government. And then they want that person in prison for a long time. If we want smaller government and lower taxes, the best way to get there is to create a more civil social structure in which people play by the rules and self-govern.

There’s a lot of wisdom in what Huckabee says here. And that interview is worth reading in its entirety, not only because it’s a pretty candid look at Huckabee’s positions, but also because it shows what many of Jim Wallis’ assumptions are concerning the role of church and government.

I’ve written before about the incompatibility of anarcho-capitalism and the Christian faith, and I think Huckabee is on to something here. The problem, as I see it, has a good deal to do with the adoption of libertarianism as a comprehensive world-and-life view, and not just a political philosophy applicable to limited spheres of human existence. When your political philosophy becomes the be-all and end-all of your worldview, you run into real problems, and that’s what I think Huckabee means by “hardcore libertarians.” Under such ideological illusions you can’t, for instance, deal adequately with the reality of positive social responsibilities that exist between persons. Political liberty becomes an end in itself, and not something, as Lord Acton would have it, that must be oriented towards a higher moral, social, and spiritual good.

That isn’t to say that varieties of libertarianism or classical liberalism that don’t assume the government to be something to be done away with, or that limit themselves to asking questions about the efficiency of political economy, don’t have a good deal to teach us. But Huckabee’s position is worth engaging, I think, if only because it resembles that of Abraham Kuyper, who in the same address could say both that “The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior,” and, “It is perfectly true that if no help is forthcoming from elsewhere the state must help. We may let no one starve from hunger as long as bread lies molding in so many cupboards. And when the state intervenes, it must do so quickly and sufficiently.”