negative liberty

The Perpetual Battle for Natural Rights

With all the scandals today – namely, at the IRS, AP, and NSA – many believe our government’s actions are violating our natural rights: mostly, our freedoms of speech, press, due process, and privacy. These “natural rights” are fundamental basic human rights, not based on man-made positive law. Many of these rights were codified by our founders in the Bill of Rights… but not without tumult.

There are those today - even within the liberty movement - willing to compromise on many issues that would infringe on the natural rights of others, in both domestic and foreign policy. I think they are wrong. In this brief history of how our Bill of Rights came about, I encourage you to look for parallels between today’s struggles and our country’s founding.

A Constitution Without Rights

John Locke, regarded as the Father of Classical Liberalism, grounded the premise for his 1690 Second Treatise of Government on the idea of natural rights. This idea, while revolutionary at the time, provided a template for subsequent political theory. Merging Locke’s idea with the British Bill of Rights of 1689, George Mason, a member of the Virginia delegation, penned the Virginia Declaration of Rights in May of 1776 - preceding both the Virginia State Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. In its Article 1, he penned these words:

Rights and the Health Care Debate

A few days ago, we discussed the concepts of insurance and public utilities. In order to advance the discussion on the health care debate, it is important to analyze the proper role of the state in the provision of health care. We’ll start with a discussion on rights.

The concept of rights is complex and, unfortunately, somewhat subjective. Western philosophy and political theory have struggled with the concept for centuries. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines rights as “qualities (as adherence to duty or obedience to a lawful authority) that together constitute the ideal of moral propriety or merit moral approval.” That is a mouthful and doesn’t help much. It is fair to say that the concept of rights is subject to broad interpretation and can be applied to many things. Thus, it is important to explore different types of rights - especially as it pertains to those which should be granted and/or protected by the state.

The English monarchy established one of the first and most influential documents which pertained to the relationship between rights and the state. This document is the famous Magna Carta which established that the King was bound by the law and that free men had certain rights which could not be violated by the monarch. This laid the groundwork for future constitutional law and an expanded discussion of rights during the Age of Enlightenment.

Comment Check: Defining Liberty, and my personal split with Ron Paul

I was looking through the comments on some of our posts, and I came across an interesting one on one of Jason’s entries. The article Jason wrote was “Ron Paul may not win, but his influence will be lasting,” and the comment in question was from a Jill. Q, who wrote (and here I am copypasting everything):

[T]here’s something weird going on when Paul, the small-government constitutionalist, is considered the extremist in the Republican Party…”

He’s not my idea of a “small government” anything. Ron Paul opposed the supreme court’s 2003 landmark decision on gay rights, Lawrence v. Texas. He said that it was an infringement on states rights to tell them that they can’t ban homosexuality.

Do you agree? Is this your idea of “liberty”, Jason? If it is, go ahead and vote for Ron Paul.

“Under those amendments, the State of Texas has the right to decide for itself how to regulate social matters like sex, using its own local standards. But rather than applying the real Constitution and declining jurisdiction over a properly state matter, the Court decided to apply the imaginary Constitution and impose its vision on the people of Texas.”

I think this is actually a good point to make, and I want to take it as an opportunity to discuss some ideas about negative and positive liberty and what I think about them as well.

First, a clarification: I don’t think anyone here considers Ron Paul to be the best, in terms of doctrinal purity, libertarian, but he is certainly a standard bearer, and has definitely put the movement “out there.” So we look to him as someone who is great for messaging libertarianism to others, but not necessarily the “best” libertarian. I think most of us here would prefer if Gary Johnson was in Paul’s place on that front.

The origin of rights?

What are the origin of our rights? Our Founding Fathers believed that our rights came from the mere fact that we are human beings. Cass Sustein, a key advisor to President Obama, takes a different approach. Sustein argues that our rights come from the government. In The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxation, which Sustein co-written with Stephen Holmes, the following argument is present:

Our freedom from government interference is no less budget-dependent than our entitlement to public assistance. Both freedoms must be interpreted. Both are implemented by public officials who, drawing on the public purse, have a good deal of discretion in construing and protecting them.

The Fourth Amendment right [against unreasonable government searches and seizures] cannot be absolute unless the public is willing to invest the enormous amounts necessary to ensure that it is seldom violated in practice. The fact that the Fourth Amendment is violated so regularly shows that the public is not willing to make that investment.

What. The. Hell?

This argument, first read at Campaign for Liberty, posits that all our rights are derived from the government and that our ability to keep our rights is contingent upon our willingness to pay taxation. Basically, our rights don’t count for a damn thing.

You see, the Constitution is clearly designed to reign in government. However Sustein and Holmes argue that we must pay government to reign itself in, and that argument that makes about as much sense as trusting Charlie Sheen to not sound like a drugged up moron on the radio.

Democratic Congressman: The federal government can do most anything in this country

At a recently town hall meeting, a well-informed and knowledgeable constituent asked Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) how health care can be a “right” when it requires that another individual to give their time, their energy, their knowledge and their labor,” comparing such a right to slavery, which she points out was banned by the Thirteenth Amendment. She also asked what limitations exist on the federal government’s ability to tell citizens how to run our private lives.

Stark stumbled around for a moment, but was pressed by the constituent on the enumerated powers of Congress in the Constitution. Rep. Stark replied, “Yes, the federal government can do most anything in this country.” Such is the mind of the statist.

Here is the exchange:

There is no right to health care

In his column last week, Walter Williams explained the difference the rights protected by the Constitution and rights that are essentially equivalent to slavery:

True rights, such as those in our Constitution, or those considered to be natural or human rights, exist simultaneously among people. That means exercise of a right by one person does not diminish those held by another. In other words, my rights to speech or travel impose no obligations on another except those of non-interference. If we apply ideas behind rights to health care to my rights to speech or travel, my free speech rights would require government-imposed obligations on others to provide me with an auditorium, television studio or radio station. My right to travel freely would require government-imposed obligations on others to provide me with airfare and hotel accommodations.

For Congress to guarantee a right to health care, or any other good or service, whether a person can afford it or not, it must diminish someone else’s rights, namely their rights to their earnings. The reason is that Congress has no resources of its very own. Moreover, there is no Santa Claus, Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy giving them those resources. The fact that government has no resources of its very own forces one to recognize that in order for government to give one American citizen a dollar, it must first, through intimidation, threats and coercion, confiscate that dollar from some other American. If one person has a right to something he did not earn, of necessity it requires that another person not have a right to something that he did earn.

Health Care: Right or Privilege?

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Quote of the Day: Rights and health care

“Genuine rights are negative, in the sense that they demand only that each of us refrains from harassing others. Because each unit of health care requires labor and resources for its production, no one can have a ‘right’ to health-care in the same way that she can have a right to speak freely or to worship the God of her choice. Enforcing Jones’s ‘right’ to health care necessarily means forcing Smith to work to produce this health care. A political ‘right’ that cannot even in principle exist without the confiscation of persons’ labor and property is no right at all; it’s a wrong.” - Don Boudreaux


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