Case Study: The Failure of a Conservative's Defense of Rights

A columnist at The American Thinker argued against the idea that health care is a right, and even attempted a definition of rights. That in itself, in a conservative forum, deserves notice. The author, Rich Hrebic, was then interviewed on the Rush Limbaugh radio show, and Rush applauded him for his definition of rights.

So what did he say?
Isn't the point of the Democrats' push to reform the health care system based on establishing health care as a right? That's what the politicians say of course. But in reality the result will be the exact opposite.

Part of the problem is that most Americans don't understand what a right is. A right is not a guarantee that the government (i.e., other people) will provide you something for free. ...

What makes something a right is not whether the government can force somebody else to pay for it. What defines something as a right is whether the government can or cannot prohibit you from doing it. ... If the government can't stop you from doing it, then it's a right. [emphasis in orig.]
Unfortunately, this simply doesn't cut it. The general thrust is good--health care is not a right--but the defense of individual rights is severely lacking. I and Ed Cline replied, and my first comment follows his; my #19 to his #18. Mine says:
Posted by: C. August
Jul 22, 11:33 AM

I applaud you for raising the question of "what is a right?" but your definition is not a satisfactory defense, certainly not in the face of ever-increasing violations of individual rights.

You said, "If the government can't stop you from doing it, then it's a right." But what is this based on? _Why_ can't the government stop you from doing certain things? I presume this refers to constitutionally guaranteed rights and/or laws on the books, but what happens when an amendment is passed that specifically violates individual rights, stopping you from doing something which you have a natural right to do? How would you fight that with your concept of rights?

Rather than being granted by the government or springing from society, individual rights are based on the nature of man as a rational, volitional being who must think and act to further his life, and who has sole claim to the product of those efforts. The fundamental individual rights from which all others are derived are the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. The only proper role of government is the protection of those rights. (It should be quite obvious that the country has moved a long way from that proper role.)

As Ayn Rand wrote [aynrandlexicon.com]:

"The Right to the Pursuit of Happiness means man’s right to live for himself, to choose what constitutes his own private, personal, individual happiness and to work for its achievement, so long as he respects the same right in others. It means that Man cannot be forced to devote his life to the happiness of another man nor of any number of other men. It means that the collective cannot decide what is to be the purpose of a man’s existence nor prescribe his choice of happiness."

And in the _Virtue of Selfishness_ she wrote:

"[A man's right to his own life] is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave."

This is the formulation of the concept of individual rights that is needed to defend against the erosion of our liberties. Simply referring to what the government can't prevent you from doing opens the door for it to pass more laws that further restrict individual freedom.
To Ed's comment and mine, the author, Rich Hrebic, responded:
Posted by: Rich Hrebic
Jul 22, 04:34 PM

Thanks to all for their thoughtful comments.

In response to Kelly, Cline and August:

I happen to agree with the Objectivist definition of rights, but that is not the only accepted definition. A right can be defined in terms of a just moral claim, as Rand did. But it can also be understood as a just legal claim.

I chose to argue my point based on the legal rather than the moral context for several reasons. In my short essay I wanted to persuade people who were sitting on the fence. These people are typically unfamiliar with Objectivsm or Natural Law theory. And I didn't want to get into defending Rand's (or anyone else's) moral principles as that would divert me from my main point.

Arguing based on the legal formulation of rights has the advantage that I don't have to defend what we can legally do or not do. Those are questions of fact, not of opinion.

Furthermore in common parlance most people understand what winning or losing a right means in practical terms. For example women "won" the right to vote when the 19th Amendment was ratified. Everyone understands what that means.

However winning or losing a right in the Randian sense is meaningless. A right in this context is a just moral claim and still exists as such whether the government respects it or not. An African slave in the antebellum South would still have had the right to be free in the Randian (moral) sense, but clearly not in the legal sense.

Again I am in agreement with the Objectivist definition of rights. However as a tactical choice I felt that the legal definition could make my point more concisely and convince a broader group of people.

The main point of my article is that, contrary to what its proponents claim, universal health care is not a protection of our rights but rather an infringement of them.

Thanks again for reading.

- Rich

There was likely only minimal value in addressing the rationalistic arguments as presented, but as I had some free time, I decided that on the off chance that some active minds happened upon the discussion, I wanted to at least have an answer posted, no matter what other comments were added later.

This was my response:
Posted by: C. August
Jul 22, 06:44 PM

Rich, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I'd like to briefly address just a couple of your points.

You said you chose to make your argument "based on the legal formulation of rights" because it served your purposes better, and that any questions about this "are questions of fact, not of opinion." I fully understand the need to speak to your particular audience, and to tailor an argument appropriately; that is an admirable tactic. But, if I understand what you mean here, you are looking to the law of the land--the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and all legal precedent--as the "fact[s]" instead of referencing the fundamental nature of individual rights.

The problem with this line of thought is that, as anyone familiar with the Kelo decision could point out, the decisions of the various branches of government that comprise the law of the land can be quite arbitrary, and ultimately result in a horribly unjust action and violation of man's most basic rights. This is what I meant when I asked in my earlier comment, "what happens when an amendment is passed that specifically violates individual rights, stopping you from doing something which you have a natural right to do? How would you fight that with your concept of rights?"

Furthermore, "winning or losing a right in the Randian sense" is most definitely _not_ meaningless. Winning the *recognition* of a right from the government is a profound victory, and one that is as "practical" as you assert is "winning the right" itself. Plus, it has the benefit of reinforcing the idea that rights are _ours_, inalienably, and winning one just means getting the behemoth government to begrudgingly recognize it.

Moving on: "However as a tactical choice I felt that the legal definition could make my point more concisely and convince a broader group of people. "

Again, I appreciate the need to speak to your specific audience, but the problem with an argument from non-essentials like the "legal definition of rights" is that it doesn't give your new "broader group of people" the tools to understand _why_ healthcare is not a right, and why, to say it is a right, means that those who provide it are essentially slaves to the healthcare needs of others.

Instead, it just says "they say it is a right, and I say it isn't, but you should believe *me* because I'm pointing to laws." This does a disservice to those out there looking for substantial answers, and ultimately sabotages your goals of defending individual rights--which I assume is your ultimate goal (an admirable one, by the way).

A modification of an old saying is apropos here: "You can lead a man to knowledge but you can't make him think." Giving men a baseless answer without the proper grounding in political philosophy may suggest that there might be an answer somewhere, but it won't ultimately help them reach it.
Soon after this, a number of other commenters chimed in, ignoring the fundamental arguments that preceded them, arguing around the same non-defense of rights. No surprise there. But for anyone paying attention, with an active mind, they should notice which arguments pushed Hrebic to respond ("methinks he protesteth too much"). Such people might draw the conclusion that Hrebic implicitly conceded that the Objectivist position is the only right one, and he simply chose to make a compromise in the mistaken interest of practicality.

UPDATE: added closing comments and minor edits - 7/23/09


The Rat Cap said...

This is excellent. Well done.

One of the rising movements on the right is the advocacy of "liberty" and "constitutionalism". They overtly take the source of rights to be the founding documents rather than the nature of man. They almost seem to regard the founding documents in the same way religionists regard the Bible, i.e., an appeal to authority without a deeper justification. (One might ask them upon what basis the American Revolution was fought since the Constitution was not ratified until 7 years after the war ended.)

I think it is great that you called him out on this.

Second, this is a good example of a point I made a few times that our battle is with the right. We need to convince the good guys, not the bad guys. I think this you made a great effort in that regard, since you are clarifying an issue with respect to a prominent intellectual who is already sympathetic to Objectivism and rational ideas but needs to understand and defend rights properly.

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