7 Nov 2012
I apologize up front. I tried to make it clear in the title that this was a politically-oriented post. You can leave now if you fear offense, though I will do my best to be considerate. It is for the purpose of avoiding offense that I generally steer clear of politics in both discussion and writing.
Let’s establish a few things up front: I am conservative. I am not a Republican, Libertarian, nor do I express any other party affiliation. I’ve chosen this after a great deal of research and thought. While I don’t claim conservatism to be absolutely correct in all things, I do assert that it is better for a nation to be led and managed by conservative principles than by any other alternative.
My use of the term, “principles”, is intentional and empowering. Principles allow us to take a debate riddled with details and distill it down to what matters most: the truth of things. That is, after all, one of the word’s definitions and, indeed, the definition I choose for this context. The principles – the truths or absolute laws – that I refer to are these:
- There are natural laws and natural rights
- There are socially-enforced or imposed laws and rights
- There is a balance to be struck between them
The Nature of Things
While I won’t descend into a religious discussion, I will reference a doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) faith: that there is a difference between those things that can act and those that can be acted upon. This transcends traditional doctrine; it is universally applicable. It is a philosophy. For that reason, I bring it into the discussion- not to argue the faith but to bring clarity to my own definition of “Natural Laws” and “Natural Rights”.
This element of choice or the ability to act is central to the nature of all things. We generally accept (though there is some debate in the religious arena) that each human being is born with the ability to choose his or her own actions. In many cases and, sadly, in many places in the world today, this ability to choose is intentionally restricted. This does not, however, change the nature of a member of our species: we are still capable of choice, even when circumstances reduce our set of available actions.
For this reason, choice is what I would consider a natural right: it cannot be stripped from an individual, regardless of circumstance or outside influences. While the availability of choices can be limited, the ability to choose cannot be taken away.
You should begin to see how narrowly I define a “Natural Right”: it fits the definition of “natural”:
“…existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.”
To gain better clarity on what is and is not a natural right, let me outline a few rights that are not natural.
Contract and Constitution
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a case study in the difference between what is natural and what is socially imposed. Let me pick a few for discussion:
“Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.”
Please disregard the intent. I’m not arguing the moral correctness of granting every person a fair judicial system. It is the assertion of the existence of a judicial system that firmly places this article outside the definition of a natural right. Justice, fairness, and, above all, a legal system, are social constructs. Without an established society or a body of governance (whatever form that may take), this right would not exist.
“Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. (…)”
This is a tricky article to consider. Again, set aside your feelings for the morality of the statement – that is not in question. What is, however, questionable, is its nature. First, marriage is, of course, another social construct. On those grounds, it is certainly disqualified as a natural right. What is more egregious is the wording of the article: it asserts that all men and women have a right to marry and to found a family. Even in an established society, how would this proposed right to marry be enforced?
Consider, for a moment, an individual who decides that he or she will marry and start a family. If this is a right, society must guarantee a partner to this individual. This is obviously in contradiction with the first and anchor article, that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. By proclaiming a right to marriage, its opposite – the right to not marry, the very right to choose – is stripped from some other.
Clearly, not all rights that we are provided, regardless of our place of birth or nationality, are natural. In many cases, our ability to exercise even our natural rights is limited. Over the history of human governance, this balance has been a theme. We call the concept a “Social Contract“.
A Balance in All Things
The in-born ability to choose comes with risk and, ultimately, responsibility. A person could (and some do) choose to murder, maim, steal, or otherwise infringe on the health and well-being of another. An external expression of this responsibility is the formation of government and the delegation of a set of potential choices, even rights, in exchange for others. A group of individuals may, for example, choose to establish a contract wherein a legal system is described and judicial powers granted. This same contract would, if we follow the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, grant any individual a right to a fair and impartial hearing for any accusations brought against her or him. The cost of this contract is the submission of the individual to this judicial system. It is an exchange of a person’s right to choose (to independently address or ignore any accusation) for society-wide fairness.
Article 16 of the Universal Declaration continues to be an excellent example. I believe, firmly, that family is the foundation of any society. I would be in favor of Article 16 if only one change were made. Compare:
“Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.”
My proposed wording:
“Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to pursue marriage and seek to found a family.”
If you remember your days in early elementary school or the classroom in your college class on constitutional law, the proposed wording should ring a bell. It’s the same tone and verbiage used in the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Pay close attention both to the wording and to the selection of rights described by Thomas Jefferson and the other founding leaders of what would later become the United States. These are the rights they proclaim as “Natural”. Note that they follow the definition I’ve outlined above:
- Pursuit of Happiness (emphasis added)
At the time, these were considered God-given rights, rights that could not be take away, regardless of an individuals ability to exercise them. There are, of course, implications to each of these: the right to life may seem to contradict with the ability for one human being to kill – or, more controversial still, the natural death of every human being who has ever lived. Liberty could be construed as the absolute freedom of choice, including the freedom to make choices that would infringe on another’s rights, such as their right to live. I will set this discussion aside, though I do feel it better to mention them to inspire thought.
Let’s place our focus on the pursuit of happiness. You’ll already be aware of the distinction made: Jefferson is asserting that we are free to pursue happiness. He even leaves the definition of happiness up to us. What he does not guarantee is the attainment of the same.
I use the same language in Article 16: an individual should be free to pursue marriage. His or her happiness may center on the attainment of it. We cannot, however, guarantee that any individual will marry without interfering with a person’s right to choose.
You may be asking how this is relevant today. Yesterday, we re-elected Barack Obama as the President of the United States. His election is a reflection of the perception of this nation and its people. He is a good man and is working hard – harder than nearly any other president – to better the lives of the citizens of the United States. Remember that I’m a conservative, not a Republican. I do not share in the vitriol each party utilizes to attempt to shape public opinion.
With this said, I do not agree with the approach President Obama espouses as he works to better our nation. Fundamentally, he (and other progressive liberals) tend to think that society is something that can be legislated into being better. In short, the President believes that it is possible to use the laws of the land to make a man or woman better than they are today. This belief system is present in the policies he has proposed and defended:
- Universal healthcare
- Stronger social safety net
- Tax reform
There are many more, of course, but this short list contains the most recognizable. Healthcare for all is a subject that is close to my heart: I have friends and family who have suffered because of the cost of treatment. Some have dealt with organ transplants – a procedure that guarantees a life of high medical bills and extended treatment simply to survive. Others have faced cancer while their families are young and unestablished. In all cases, the cost of surviving, even setting aside quality of life for a moment, is enormous. Health insurance, as it exists today, is designed to accommodate no more than a few emergencies. So-called healthcare companies do whatever they can to get a genuinely sick person off of their books. It’s a matter of good business to them; that person is disproportionately expensive.
I hope you see the moral dilemma I face: I do not agree that the government is the best provider for health services. We have seen time and time again that the best-intentioned government agency devolves into a waste of resources and ultimately results in the dehumanization of all those it was designed to defend and protect. I do not see how government-orchestrated health could produce anything different.
On the other hand, my friends, my family, and so many others have suffered medical setbacks that have resulted in life-changing expenses. It is clear that our current, private healthcare providers do not intend to address this. Ayn Rand was clearly wrong: capitalism is neither benevolent nor merciful.
I don’t have a solution to this problem. I see two sides and no proposed middle-ground. Whichever side wins the day will do so at the cost of those they should have served.
Social Safety Net
I’m going to draw on some religious principles again to illustrate the differences between my own opinion and that of the President. First, let me state categorically that I do believe that a social safety net is an integral part of any well-founded society or government. It is the operation of this safety net and its current structure that I question.
In most religions, the concept of charity is taught and held in high regard:
2 Peter 5, 7:
“…add to your faith virtue; … and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.”
The Bible isn’t the only religious work promoting charity. References are found in the Book of Mormon, the Torah (even those sections not contained in the Old Testament), the Quran, and many others. Religion generally teaches that we should share what we have with others.
I side with religion in that I consider it an individual’s highest responsibility to care for a neighbor in need. I also consider it the highest act of personal refinement to do so. To give to another in need changes a person; I believe these changes are positive and necessary to prepare individuals for participating in a healthy and robust society.
My perception of charity and charitable actions – that it improves both the state of society and the stature of any human being – drives my preference for the structure and action of a social safety net. In short, it should not diminish or interfere with an individual’s act of charity. Unfortunately, we have evidence that clearly suggests that our current welfare system does both.
This is also a question of morality. It is possible to structure the United States and its economy such that the whole of our society sees a significant rise in our standard of living – especially among those found in what we term the lower classes. We could even do this without the need for the majority of our population to work – in fact, this is precisely how our welfare system operates today. Benefits are determined in accordance with work-based pay and the structure tends to encourage a lack of ambition. In short, when one falls into the social safety net, it becomes increasingly difficult to get out.
It is morally wrong, even reprehensible, for the social safety net to trap people in poverty. It is also wrong for the same welfare system to rob a person of their right to pursue happiness – which, inevitably, involves hard work.
The current political and media arenas tend to cast taxation in the light of wealth redistribution. The terminology is important: note the use of the word “wealth” in place of “income”. The use of the term “redistribution” is enlightening too. The message about tax reform is clearly:
- The wealth of those in the upper reaches of society is unearned. It is not income.
- This wealth rightfully belongs to someone (or something) else and should be distributed accordingly
This message contains some dangerous assumptions, key among them is eliminating the concept of work, of earning wealth.
It is absolutely true that there is a serious problem with wealth distribution – and that it’s getting worse. There are two ways to look at this problem:
- A small percent of society has somehow stolen the majority of wealth
- Our system for opportunity is broken, leading to income disparity
I’ve intentionally used very different terms to describe the problem. Clearly, I think the fundamental issue is the system of opportunity, not wealth distribution. I’m not surprised that most people tend to look at this differently. After all, it is much, much more difficult to diagnose and fix the system of opportunity in any economy than it is to simply take money from one person and give it to another. It is less attractive also due to its reliance on the work of the populace – by fixing the system of opportunity, we return to each living person the responsibility for their own destiny. That is often a difficult pill to swallow. On the other hand, even were we to attempt a genuine redistribution, it would be problematic. The French revolutions (and their current system of limited socialism) offer excellent examples of the many social and economic problems that arise from such.
I tend to look at this with the analogy of the skyscraper: there is a penthouse at the top and an elevator to get there. The problem isn’t that the penthouse exists or is nice – the problem is that the elevator is broken. Instead of raiding the penthouse, let’s fix the elevator and get more people living there.
I disagree with the President’s attempt to improve our society. On deep introspection, it seems that progressive policies have the effect of moving the responsibility of both success and failure from the individual and on to the government. That does not create better people; instead, it dooms them to a life of servitude and poverty. It is our nature to need to work. It is also our nature to need to improve continually.
I’m a parent of 5 children with another on the way. One of the key lessons I have learned in attempting to raise my children is the absolute necessity to allow them to fail, to fall, and even to get hurt. It is my job to make sure that their danger is never too great and their pain never too much. It is not my job, however much I might wish it, to take that pain away or to build a bubble around them to save them from the world. I – and my children – were born to act, not to be acted upon. They have a right to choose and a right to face the world on their own two feet.
This is the only way society progresses. It is easy to forget that any society, any nation, consists of individuals. While the whole is certainly greater than an individual part, each one must play a role. If we produce a society of individuals who are trapped in a social safety net, unable to unlock their personal potential to contribute back to society, we will fail. We must pull our weight. We must stand and lift together.