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I meant to go on to Benjamin Barber’s Consumed today, but I overslept, and I’m still wandering around with tea at ten o’clock in the morning.

Okay, I didn’t quite oversleep.  Rather, I got up at one, couldn’t get back to sleep, finally did get back to sleep around four, got woken by the alarm at four thirty five, went back to sleep again and finally woke up for good around nine.

So I’m addled, and I’ve got chocolates from Boxhill coming today, and a new series of Perry Mason videos to watch while correcting papers, and I’m not on track to say what I wanted to say about that book.

But it occured to me, in the middle of all of this, that I’m always struck by how incredibly frightening, and threatening, the whole concept of rights is.

I think that’s at least partially to blame for why so many peoplw want to install positive “rights.”  Positive “rights” aren’t real rights, and because they are not they come in conflict all the time, and as soon as you can say that “rights” are in conflict, you can limit and regulate rights.

But a right is, by definition, an area of space your government–democratic or otherwise, with the will of the majority or otherwise–cannot legislate.  It means that even in a democratic country and even if you are a minority of one, nobody can intrude on that space.  It means that no matter how repugnant your ideas or how dangerous your government or your fellow citizens find them to be, you cannot be stopped from expresing them.

In a way, this does in fact have something to do with Benjamin Barber’s book, because Barber is nearly obsessed with the “anarchic” nature of capitalism–and the problem with capitalism for him is largely in the fact that it is anarchic, that it is not under somebody’s control somewhere.

Real anarchy, though, is not the present system of capitalistism (to the extent that it exists at all), and it isn’t our Constitutional idea of unalienable, individual rights to be free of government power in some areas.

The problem is not that there is anarchy in these things, but that they inevitable lead to people making choices, having ideas, promoting opinions that we both fear and loathe.

I’m coming to believe that the hardest thing for human beings to do–much harder than losing weight or eliminating war or any of the rest of it–is to accept the fact that the law cannot, and SHOULD NOT, legislate morality.

At all.


The law is meant to keep the peace.  That’s it.  It isn’t supposed to do anything else. 

Moralities–or even Morality with a capital M, the One True Morality applicable to everybody everywhere under all circumstances–must be entered into voluntarily by each individual.

And every attempt of the law to force citizens to adhere to that morality, no matter how benign it sounds–be nice to people!  don’t hurt their feelings! don’t promote things we think are harmful!–always ends in the same place, and it isn’t with a better society.

I’m going to go drink this tea now, and see if the chocolates are on the porch.

If you don’t know Box Hill, you should go to


That’s my friend Janet, fellow refugee from the Connecticut Gold Coast, and she makes absolutely wonderful stuff.

In the Gregor novels, she also did the favors for Gregor and Bennis’s wedding.

Written by janeh

April 22nd, 2010 at 10:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Rights'

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  1. I don’t know that you can prove that moralities must be entered into voluntarily by each individual. I personally think they should, but that’s based on my personal beliefs. I can’t think of a reason to do so that could be generalized to all moralities, and definitely not one that applies if someone were able to get everyone to accept a One True Morality.

    You’re assuming a morality based on the individual’s needs and abilities to perfect himself morally. I think there are other kinds, more communally oriented. What’s the purpose of a moral code? Is it so that each individual can develop a beautifully thought-out philosophy that doesn’t impinge on or require anything from another human being? I think any moral code has to deal with other humans (although it’s sooo much easier to be morally upright if you don’t!) and as soon as you get other people into the equation, you are going to end up with some of them not accepting moral precepts which they must do for their companions moral code to exist in any meaningful way. And, of course, you get an overlap with the legal system, which, even if it’s primary purpose is to keep order, uses morality to decide which particular bits of order it will concern itself about.

    I do agree about positive ‘rights’, but I think that idea has escaped into the wild, and we’re stuck with it. I noticed a headline in my skimming of the news that the Duchess of York thinks everyone has a right to have two healthy daughters, like she does.

    Where do I sign up to get my daughters?


    22 Apr 10 at 12:08 pm

  2. On the distinction between positive and negative rights, we’re in agreement.

    As for not legislating morality–it might be an interesting experiment, but I don’t believe it’s ever been carried out. Nor do I expect it to be. The people most insistent that blue laws be stricken from the books are also the loudest voices insisting on precisely those positive rights–because it would be “immoral” for the government not to provide them. And, once again, it’s a matter of imposing moral obligations on the unwilling. Anyone who thinks it’s immoral for another human being to go without can write a check. They collect taxes instead because it’s immoral for someone else not to “contribute” their “fair share.” An advocate of single-payer tax-funded health care is not trying to avoid legislating morality. She may be interested in not legislating sexual morality, but that’s not the same thing at all.

    With a little luck, you can get BOTH types of regulated morality, with “fair price” theory thrown in as well–come to think of it, roughly the condition of the US immediately after WWII.

    The libertarian paradise–no imposed morality of either sort–might be interesting, but I don’t think you’ll get there by democracy, and you CAN’T get there any other way.


    22 Apr 10 at 8:07 pm

  3. I’m not interested in single payer health systems because I think people “should pay their fair share”–I don’t really give a damn.

    I want a single payer health system for the same reason I want the roads, the police, and the fire department run by governments: because that’s the best PRACTICAL answer for dealing with a real world problem.

    I’ve said before–and I will again–that if you can come up with a viable alternative to make sure the people now called “uninsurable” can get the treatment they need, I’ll be more than happy to listen to it. After all, there are hazards to the single payer thing.

    And note–I did NOT say “the uninsured.”

    I said “the uninsurABLE.”

    People born with cystic fibrosis, people who get their first cancers at nine, people who get catastrophic diseases or are in near-fatal accidents or who get blown up in Iraq.

    I want the fire department not because I think that I and my fellow citizens have a moral obligation to help our neighbors in case of fire, but because a fire unfought threatens to burn down the buildings around it and one of those may one day be mine.

    I want the uninsurable treated for a whole host of similar reasons–because they tend to catch things quicker than the rest of us and are in danger of spreading them; because in treating them we may learn something about the disease that may some day mean being better able to rreat me; because, whether there are taxpayer funded welfare programs or not, people with debilitating conditions often end up unable to work and being a drain on the entire economy.

    And I could probably list a dozen more reasons.

    I’ve got no use for positive rights of any kind.

    I don’t think health care is a right. I don’t think it’s “immoral” for the government not to provide it.

    But I do think it’s IMPRACTICAL, and will continue to think so until somebody comes up with an alternative solution.

    So far, I haven’t heard one.


    22 Apr 10 at 8:21 pm

  4. The problem with many of these issues is the same, the difficulty if not impossibility of finding a way to separate definitively “needs” from “wants”. We’re having debates here in Oz about the “need” for a Bill of Rights. The left insists that we “need” an all-encompassing Bill that will enshrine people’s “rights” to just about every imaginable thing EXCEPT freedom of speech and assembly and just about everything enshrined as negative rights in the US Bill of Rights, although freedom of religion is already guaranteed in the constitution (which the High Court is as likely to ignore as not depending on the political druthers of the sitting justices. The right, on the other hand, doesn’t want a Bill of Rights at any price, believing – quite reasonably in my view – that it would limit existing common law rights by imposing a state of mind that would argue that if a right is not codified, it doesn’t exist. Also it would be used so that one person’s right becomes another person’s burden.

    So, in reality, and given that we’ve survived nicely for 110 years without such a Bill of Rights, what we are talking about are “wants” not “needs”.

    The same applies to single payer health schemes. They are bedevilled by the inability or unwillingness of the health authorities at all levels to limit medical care to those who actually need it rather than those who just want it.

    Solve that conundrum and you’ll solve your medical care problems.


    22 Apr 10 at 9:15 pm

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