Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Rights and Entitlements

Every functioning government -- from county to federal -- provides some measure of services to the public in addition to security.

Citizens give up property, generally in the form of taxes, to finance these services. The most vehement of libertarians will argue that the government should not get involved in service delivery, but it is rather simple to understand why a government does so. An individual can build a driveway to his mailbox, but isn't going to finance a modern road of any consequence. Nor will corporations finance the volume of roadways necessary to create a functional modern society. It must be collective action in the form of government. And this is just one example.

There is an entire body of law that governs collection and spending of revenue for the public good, and from a policy standpoint, you can debate the relative merit of every government program. But the systems are established in public law, and are therefor legitimate...though frequently wasteful and inefficent.

The hazard for the American public is not that government programs exist, but in the rhetoric that claims such programs must exist. This is the road that generates misguided statements like Americans have a "right to healthcare." The advocate makes this claim to undermine the debate over the merit of government funded healthcare, implying that there is some ordained or natural human right to get treatment for illness, and that government must establish programs to enforce this natural (rather than electoral) mandate.

In a state of natural liberty, this is obviously not so. Healthcare is a human invention -- we are not born into it anymore than we are homeowner's insurance. Healthcare qualifies not as a right, but as a potential "entitlement." Through the legislative process, government decides that citizens (and in some cases any person in the US) should be provided a service or payment, and finances its distribution. This is elective public policy that can be established, extended, and hopefully reduced or eliminated as required, though the last seems a rarity. The law may entitle you to the service, but there is no "right" to it, except as determined by law.

In the case of entitlements, the only "right" involved is Equal Protection -- that once passed, the law applies equally to all people. This establishes that the laws creating entitlements are general to all people, even when providing different levels of entitlement based on criteria (income, age, family size, etc.) Civil Rights govern the application of entitlement law -- they do not justify it.

When a politician states that people have a "right" to any entitlement, hold onto your wallet. Entitlements should be considered according to their costs and benefits, not as gifts of nature.

Friday, March 27, 2009

It seems like a rarity for Americans to spend any effort thinking about what they believe. The lack of rigor is apparent in the simplest terms that infiltrate our political vocabulary. Any American can give you an example of his "rights" but can offer no definition of a right, or an articulate explanation for how it is derived.

As a short term assistant professor of American Politics, I lived the mantra of most rookie profs -- to stay one day ahead of the class. I also discovered the truism that one of the easiest ways to understand a subject is to be forced to teach it. Having to explain Locke to 19 year olds was humbling -- but eye opening as well.

A second order effect to being forced into a nominal understanding of Locke led me to significant thought about why I believe as I do. Convenient for the lazy and somewhat uncommitted, I was able to crib from the intellectual bedrock of the Constitution. For the first time I was able to mentally grasp the distinction between liberty and rights.

Liberty is inherently an absence of constraint -- you do what you want, when you want...and devil take the hindmost. It is a condition enjoyed by all creatures from plankton to homo sapiens. The issue with this natural liberty is that it overlaps, and we come into conflict over things and places (property) -- when all have equal claim to everything, violence ensues. In a civil society, people sacrifice some portion of their natural liberty to a collective body politic in exchange for security -- specifically to settle disputes over property, and protect their lives (a form of property) -- both from local violence and outside threats. The remainder of this freedom is considered civil liberty. Relatively simple and straightforward.

The concept of "rights" stems from the idea that the constraints on natural liberty are limited -- and some areas are beyond the powers of government to infringe. In addition, these constraining laws must apply equally to all. Spelled out in the first ten amendments, these limits are complex and subject to interpretation, but the concept is clear.

Laws are the means by which government implements its authorized constraints on liberty. Despite the protestations of the ACLU and libertarians, the rub rests not so much in government infringing our rights, but in people claiming "rights" which are nothing of the sort. More to follow on this.

The Uncommitted Pundit

The title of choice for this blog was the Lazy Pundit. It should have been no surprise to this correspondent that it was a title already taken. And why not? With consideration it became apparent that punditry and laziness are synonymous. Isn't the energetic pundit considered an academic? The academic requires research, study, and careful annotation in the development of an argument. The pundit does not.

For the pundit, logic and consistency are largely optional, and there is no accountability in opinion. Credentials offer more amplification than gravity. The artful turn of phrase makes the argument. Or perhaps it is the sheer outrageousness of the position. Whichever.

So as a "feed the mayo to the tuna" idea guy, laziness is given. So it is the Uncommitted Pundit. Commitment is unnecessary in the beginning, when obscurity is certain, and there is comfort in the mirage of Internet anonymity.