Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Right to Life and Other Rights Discussions

When one discusses welfare and socialized health care, as well as capitalism, as much as I do (and that isn't even that much compared to others), one of the most appealing arguments out there is that people have a right to life. That society has an obligation to protect its weaker members. Yet libertarians often say that the right to life cannot be extended to tax some for the benefit of others, saying that this saps individual ingenuity on both the demand and the supply end. Some of the reasoning was provided by Ayn Rand in such works of awful literature and awful philosophy as Anthem and The Fountainhead.

Let me point out that the "self-reliance" arguments are totally beside the point unless the rights questions have been determined. Ironically, the argumentation for the right to property superseding the right to life is almost always laughably weak.

After all, Thomas Jefferson declared that all human beings have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Notice two things: life is before liberty, and property doesn't even show up there. In fact, the common cry was "Liberty and property!", but Jefferson replaced the crass "property" with the pursuit of happiness, in a more aesthetically and spiritually cleansing way.

What does this prove?

Well, actually, that was sort of a trap, because it really proves almost nothing. Thomas Jefferson could be wrong. He was a slaveowner, and that was wrong. He argued for strict construction yet extended the Constitution to allow the Louisiana Purchase. Only with the secular cult attitude that enshrines the Founders can one believe his attitudes are ipso facto correct.

However, more subtly, I think it shows that the Enlightenment values that Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers enshrined were deeply anti-capitalist in nature. While sounding vaguely like capitalist concepts when uttered, the same could undoubtedly be said for Stalinist proclamations. When looking at actual institutions, the illusion falls.

Why can one say that the right to life should be enshrined centrally?

1) Because the converse has frightening implications. Denying the right to life may deny welfare, but (though I do not want to make a crude cudgel of a "slippery slope" argument) where does one draw the line? Might it also deny law and order expenditures, which defend life? Might it allow state-sanctioned murder, the death penalty and war? The right to property could be almost completely taken away and one would still be alive; if the right to life is breached, as one is dead, all other rights cannot be used. (Though this is a bit of an unfair argument, as I go over later).
2) A society based on the notion that the right to life should exist is one that breeds compassion. It reduces inequity. It increases solidarity. It reduces crime. It seems morally superior.

And what of the individual ingenuity argument? My response is: Who cares? The society has to support individuals even if they don't like what the people do with their resources, just as the society must support free speech even if it doesn't like what is said with said free speech. In any respect, no advocate I've seen for insuring that everyone is taken care of is against education of all kinds; in fact, they're all for it, quite loudly. To use the commonly offered metaphor: I just don't see a contradiction between giving somebody a fish and teaching them how to fish, especially during the learning process when giving them a fish will keep them alive to learn and not doing so either lets them die or forces them to steal fish from others.

The question may be, "Why would someone want to work if they're provided for?" But that's silly. There's no correlation between poverty or welfare recipience and work that I've seen made out. Some rich folks work very hard; others not at all. Some are poor because they don't work or don't have drive; the majority are poor despite incredibly hard labor, in fact doing the most onerous jobs of society. This puts the lie to the myth that people won't work hard without the incentive to get rich: For those who work hardest in our society are often paid virtually none at all.

Some people will not work no matter what. Those people should not be allowed to die. The question now becomes, how many people won't work if they'll be provided for? Even if the society privileges a work ethic? Even if luxury items can only be gained by working very hard at a balanced job complex? Even if training is free? Who wouldn't want to work at a job they'd actually like? On the other hand: How many people who would work if they could find a job they like or that utilized their skills or, heck, any job at all will become weak and use sick because they were down on their luck? How many people will use their second chance? I think any rational person could see that the former seems to make quite a bit mit more sense. And the statistics bear this out. The majority of welfare recipients in the modern system are white middle-class families coming on hard times.

I think that people have an innate creative drive. Even the laziest people I've met, the least likely to hold down jobs, have worked hard, and have dreams and skills they could use. Capitalism is just too inefficient and unjust to provide.

Incidentally, a parecon might actually make the decision to deny free money to the poor, especially in times of scarcity. But parecon is the only economy I can see that could justly do this, as balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, worker's councils, etc. provide that everyone who can work should be able to and enjoy it.

To rebut, some advocates say that the property right is the foundation for all other rights. But this is shoddy logic at best. Yes, define "property" as someone's physical body, intellectual "property", perhaps relationships and intangible assets, and eventually one will get through simple connection-drawing the entirety of someone's existence, and ipso facto the basis for all other rights. But the same could be said for speech. The Supreme Court in essence declared that money is political speech because it can be used to influence the political process. Every action someone could take could be seen as an endorsement of a position or some kind of speech act. Thus, the right to free speech could cover every other right.

Why segment these rights, then? For the same reason someone creates other conceptual boundaries: to understand issues. One can imagine a society where no individual owned anything per se yet was totally free to do anything they wished, drawing on communal property. One could imagine (and indeed, such societies have existed) where freedom of religion is tolerated but freedom of dissent is not; smart empires, like Persia, Rome or America, tend to operate in that fashion.

The point is that some limitation of the property right, not its elimination but the replacement of private ownership of the means of production, is vital to preserve an infinite array of other rights. And even if private property occasionally makes good or non-tyrannical decisions, that no more justifies it as an institution than the fact that a dictatorship may make good decisions justifies tyranny.

Some say that they should be able to opt-out of any societal expenditure they don't like. But if that's the case, they should also lose benefits concurrently. As a practical matter, membership in any society requires compromises. As Shalom outlines in his parpolity vision, individuals who wished to secede from a parpolity/parecon could do so at will, as long as they did not take assets they didn't earn with them. But it strikes me that these libertarian advocates demand that they not have to pay a pittance to the poor while their entire education and the functioning of their favored economy, the market, was based on the society coming together and defending those values. An odd little contradiction, there.

Equality of opportunity is always trumpted by these advocates, yet do any of them propose races where both runners are given equal lengths of track and no disabilities vis-a-vis each toher and the loser is shot? The point to me is clear: Equality of opportunity can only be based on justice. Under the Nazi system, one with real grit could probably succeed: through acquiescence and cowardice. We would not want to reward such behavior and would view someone with such a hard-working ethic as a monster, not a saint. So a CEO may work very hard, but she makes money not just or even primarily because of hard work but because the society allowed conspicuous consumption. But even if everyone has truly equal opportunity, the losers under the system should not be given horrific fates. I think Rawl's standard of ethics, wherein one imagines oneself in every position in society and considers what it would be like in each (assuming that they might be blindly placed into any position, even the worst), is a fair one here.

I have nothing against enhancing control of the individual over the society, increasing opportunities for dissent, etc. But I don't think anyone gave you the right to deny people food. If you don't like it, then leave.


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