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Monday, June 26, 2006


When is it a right?

posted by russell at Monday, June 26, 2006 permalink View blog reactions
In a comment on RedState, a poster named DonS once offered the following trenchant observation:
Liberals look at a need, and see a right.

Although I'm definitely to the left of center, especially these days, I find this comment to be right on the money. Liberal Americans commonly speak of a right to a good education, a right to affordable healthcare, and a right to three squares a day.

I agree that there is a sense in which these things are rights, but only in the sense that noone should prevent anyone else from getting these things for themselves according as they are able. As I make it out, that makes them, as rights, approximate analogues to B.B. King's "right" to sing the blues -- noone should stop him, and noone better try.

What it does not make them are things which the government is bound to guarantee to us as a necessary part of its raison d'etre.

I also, however, believe that things like this -- education, health care, a "safety net" sufficient to prevent widespread hunger -- are completely appropriate things for government to provide if that's what people want government to do.

I'm not sure what color that makes me -- red, blue, purple, or orange.
In the Declaration of Independence, the Founders asserted the existence of certain fundamental, inalienable human rights, and enumerated three: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, this minimal statement of rights was elaborated, and made more specific, but the general sense throughout was of fundamental human rights as being freedom from some form of constraint or limitation, rather than an entitlement to some tangible good or service.

The Preamble to the Constitution, however, also offers "... promote the General Welfare..." as one of the goals of government. I recognize and respect the fact that the word "Welfare" as used here does not denote or require the modern meaning of "welfare", but I also recognize and respect the fact that any reading of the word "Welfare" allows the government a range of action beyond the minimum of protection from external enemies, criminals, and enforcement of contracts.

What I would like to propose is that (a) the government is not required, as a matter of fundamental, inalienable right, to guarantee that every citizen never know a moment of need, and also that (b) government is a useful, reasonable, and quite often effective vehicle for insuring that basic, useful services -- education, basic health care, "safety net" level provisions for food and housing -- are available to its citizens.

I think liberals do a disservice to the goal of making these kinds of things available by stating them as rights. They are not rights in the same sense that freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure are rights. Claiming that they are so fundamentally fails to recognize the limits of what government can do. There will never, ever, ever be a society free from want, ignorance, and despair on this earth, at least until a power greater than mankind makes it so, and no government will change that.

At the same time, claiming that government oversteps its lawful bounds if it tries to provide some remediation for the very real distortions of modern industrial and post-industrial economies fails to recognize that, in a government of, by, and for the people, the people themselves may legitimately choose to employ government as a useful means to address large-scale social and economic issues.

I look forward to your comments.


here is my attitude,

1) fundamental inalienable rights, as such, tend to be negative rights. they exist outside utilitarian calculus. just because distributing your organs to individuals who have more aggregate years of life ahead of them is "the greatest good for the greatest number," we disregard the crass utilitarian calculus because there are fundamental rights which we view through a kantian ethical lens. do what is right, even if it leads to suffering!

2) on the other hand, positive rights are generally more a matter of utilitarian calculation. we live in a world of scarcity and limited possibility, so we must make choices and weight the costs and benefits which will enable maximum freedom of choice & dignity as well as maintaining a proper and sustainable social order.

the problem with the modern left is that they take many possibilites of #2, and transform them into kantian ethical injunctions. there is no utilitarian calculus in regards to the costs and the benefits, what is right is right. as an example of this, i give you the year 2000 election, where voting for ralph nader was "right." a utilitarian calculus though probably implies that many of the Left's traditional constituents have suffered, while the ascendence of two young supreme court justices will leave a mark for ages.

(speaking here as a libertarian with minimal affinities for both sides here)


Hey Razib -

I haven't read Kant, but here is my take on this.

I fully agree that a utilitarian calculus has no bearing on any question of rights. Fundamental, inalienable rights simply are, even when not recognized, and questions of utility are not relevant.

The things that fall in this category all have to do with limiting the power of the state on free individuals, and groups of free individuals. They amount to freedoms from restraint or interference by the state.

Things that are subject to a utilitarian calculus are not rights as far as I can tell. Among these are things like education, health care, social insurance. They are not rights, they are simply good and useful things.

People may choose to get these things for themselves through their own private initiative, or they may choose to make them available through commonly shared institutions like government.

It really does not make much difference to me which vehicle people choose, other than the fact that at least a basic form is more likely to be provided to more people through commonly shared institutions than otherwise.

What I find incorrect in much liberal thought is the doctrine that these things are, because they are good and useful, rights.

What I find incomprehensible in nearly all conservative thought is the doctrine that, because they are not rights, government has no legitimate role in securing or providing them.

Thanks -


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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.