Real human rights entail human obligations. But not all human obligations to treat other humans well entail identifiable human rights.
The right to life obligates others not to murder; the right to liberty obligates others not to enslave, but the obligation to be kind or helpful or charitable does not give an individual a claim on me for not giving to him or her. (At least not a legally enforceable one.)
I have an obligation to help others… but who determines how much of my resources should be devoted to providing for my family, starting endeavors by which I hope to gain more resources or guarding against future disaster? All those subjective calculations are involved in real decisions about how and when to help someone. Human rights derive from objective and relatively invariant and universally similar obligations on all people. Obligations that depend on judgments about circumstances can’t generate rights.
That doesn’t mean these obligations aren’t real. But it does suggest that enforcing these obligations by invoking “rights” is a subterfuge.
In 1971 John Rawls published “A Theory of Justice,” the most significant articulation and defense of political liberalism of the 20th century. Rawls proposed that the structure of a just society was the one that a group of rational actors would come up with if they were operating behind a “veil of ignorance” — that is, provided they had no prior knowledge what their gender, age, wealth, talents, ethnicity and education would be in the imagined society. Since no one would know in advance where in society they would end up, rational agents would select a society in which everyone was guaranteed basic rights, including equality of opportunity. Since genuine (rather than “on paper”) equality of opportunity requires substantial access to resources — shelter, medical care, education — Rawls’s rational actors would also make their society a redistributive one, ensuring a decent standard of life for everyone.
So if this is the right way to determine how a society can be a just society, how would a rational agent in Rawls’ book differ from a wise agent in the book of Proverbs?
Here is the problem:
In Rawls’ view, society is “just there” and its resources and wealth fall from the sky. They aren’t produced. It didn’t require hard work by motivated people to make those resources available They don’t run out. They don’t need to be conserved. There is simply an eternal unchanging mass of wealth that needs to be minimally distributed.
But Rawls is being irrational to believe this. If he were rational he would realize that wealth gets created and conserved. People act with greater or lesser efficiency.
If he had any Biblical perspective he would know that peoples and nations rise and fall according to the aggregate decisions the people make.
Rawls was only really asking what about people who know they are joining a society that has reached the point like the one in which he was writing. And he was further assuming that resources would not get used up by the society that he was advocating.
American wealth did not just happen. It got created by people who had none of the so-called “rights” that he advocated. They had to provide for themselves.
And American wealth did not increase under the application of Rawls’ vision. It has been dissipating. People get a “right” to a shrinking pie.
So if you are lucky enough to hit the welfare-state jackpot when it is first flush with cash, you will be happy with Rawlsian rationality. But if you come to it later, you will find a different situation.
If you include ignorance of when the rational agents will join this society, then they are going to want a market driven, free society so that, even if they don’t have equal access to resources, they still have a growing standard of living.
Without the Federal Government businesses would sell pretend medicine pills that are really useless white powder. They would even sell poison as medicine that would kill babies.
Isn’t it great that all these homicidal fraudsters and stupidly vulnerable dupes can come together and form a government that is so competent and ethical that it can save us from all this stuff we would do to ourselves without it? We can be sure such homicidal plotters would combine their votes with the easy marks to get exactly the kind of government that would restrain the homicidal and protect the marks, but never one that would provide cover for the homicidal and false security to the marks.
Yes, that makes so much sense.
Politoco.com just dropped what should be a bombshell:
Wall Street is clear about who’s to blame for the government shutdown and a looming debt default: tea party Republicans.
What’s less clear is what Wall Street can do about it.
The reality is that deep-pocketed financial services executives and their lobbyists have little leverage against tea party lawmakers who don’t much care for financiers or big banks and don’t rely heavily on the industry for campaign cash.
“Those are the ones who are most problematic for Boehner,” one D.C.-based lobbyist who represents financial services clients said of tea party lawmakers. “I don’t think there’s any way for Wall Street to punish the 25 to 50 hard core House Republicans. It’s not like [Reps. Steve] Stockman and Tim Huelskamp are doing a lot of Goldman Sachs events. I don’t think Justin Amash cares if Bank of America gives to him or not.”
The rise of tea party lawmakers’ influence is a shift from years past when the Republican party was more business friendly and could be counted on by Wall Street to give great weight to its concerns.
For many members of Congress, wooing wealthy Wall Street donors and financial services PACs is a routine part of their reelection efforts and a source of frustration for industry critics who view this largesse as standing in the way of reforms. The reputation of the banking industry has taken a beating since the financial crisis, but it nevertheless remains a powerful lobbying force in Washington thanks in part to its generous political donations.
But the industry feels powerless when it comes to dealing with some members of the tea party, who are immune from one of Wall Street’s most potent tools: campaign donations.
“The extreme radicals are going to get reelected because they come from districts where they don’t need to raise that much money,” said Greg Valliere, chief political strategist of the Potomac Research Group. “This new tea party movement is not particularly pro-business. They certainly are not pro-Wall Street and pro-big banks. That is a new strain in the Republican party that worries many on Wall Street.”
The heads of big banks — including Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon — met with President Barack Obama on Wednesday to discuss the shutdown, debt ceiling and other issues. They are also expected to meet with some lawmakers as part of gatherings organized by the Financial Services Forum — a group that represents the heads of large banks and insurance companies.
So despite all the Occupy Wall Street propaganda and the exaltation of Elizabeth Warren and all the other anti-Wall-Street posers, it is all really an act. So-called Leftists are wetting their pants at the thought of a movement that might truly fight against the Wall-Street-Washington-DC industrial complex. They’re all a pack of hypocrites.
The real voice of the 99 percent is the tea party.
Christians in the Middle East and Africa are being slaughtered, tortured, raped, kidnapped, beheaded, and forced to flee the birthplace of Christianity. One would think this horror might be consuming the pulpits and pews of American churches. Not so. The silence has been nearly deafening.
And why that silence among conservative Evangelicals? Easy. Conservative Evangelicals supported Bush, then McCain, then Romney. Bush started the “Sunni turn” in 2007 (assuming it wasn’t the plan all along and he just took a brief break), McCain… I don’t have to say anything more…, and Romney was openly in favor of the same intervention in Syria (and elsewhere). Unless we get a Rand Paul miracle the next GOP president will pursue the same policy. Obama is simply following the same playbook as any other president of the “two parties.”
American Christians would rather just keep quiet while American policy promotes the mass slaughter of Christians rather than give up their warmonger Republicans or their Zionism.
What do you suspect God thinks of that choice?
What is more maddening is that the same Christian groups will speak about the importance of the Gospel “for all of life” and say that Christians should work for public justice are the same populations that are doing virtually nothing on this issue.
Decisions have consequences. When Christians decided to care little and do less about Christians in Iraq, we did something to our consciences that is growing and spreading among us. We committed ourselves to a path that can only lead to a worse place.
The Department of Transportation came to us one day and said they needed to increase the fees for driver’s licenses. When we asked why, they said that the cost of relicensing wasn’t being fully recovered at the current fee levels. Then we asked why we should be doing this sort of thing at all. The transportation people clearly thought that was a very stupid question: Everybody needs a driver’s license, they said. I then pointed out that I received mine when I was fifteen and asked them: “What is it about relicensing that in any way tests driver competency?” We gave them ten days to think this over. At one point they suggested to us that the police need driver’s licenses for identification purposes. We responded that this was the purpose of an identity card, not a driver’s license. Finally they admitted that they could think of no good reason for what they were doing – so we abolished the whole process! Now a driver’s license is good until a person is 74 years old, after which he must get an annual medical test to ensure he is still competent to drive. So not only did we not need new fees, we abolished a whole department. That’s what I mean by thinking differently.
- God is a warrior; therefore war is good. But warriors don’t think all war is good. When Joab was ordered to get Uriah the Hittite killed in war, he followed orders but he didn’t like it. When Saul tried to get Jonathan executed for violating orders in a war their fellow warriors got in the way and told Saul to back off and back down. The fact that God is a warrior no more makes him pro-war than the fact that God commands capital punishment makes him approve of Charles Manson. The question is always: Which war are you talking about? In the US other than a rare Teddy Roosevelt or a veteran, many wars are promoted by people who have not only never seen military action, but who were careful to avoid it.
- War is good because we have to defend America. When? Mostly that has been done adequately by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. One noticeable exception was Pearl Harbor. But in response to a few thousand people in a military target, we laid waste to all of Japan, indiscriminately killing both civilians and soldiers together, bombing major cities. (This is all in addition to the nukes we used when they were asking for surrender terms.) The fact is Japan had no resources to seriously invade us. War as a reprisal and demand for satisfaction was amply justified. War as a crusade refusing to give terms of surrender was not defense. The War wasn’t in self-defense; it was the excuse everyone acknowledges that FDR was looking for in order to re-make the world. One other time we got attacked from overseas, on 9/11/2001, we decided to invade and occupy a country that had nothing to do with it, and left it much worse off than it was before (Really. Just do some basic research). So, in theory, a war could be justified on the grounds of defense, but when has that ever actually happened to us?
- War is right because pacifism is wrong. Other than to recruit enough weirdos to continue the movement, pacifism exists to legitimize imperialism and murder in warfare. Think about it. If all war is equally and always immoral, then killing civilians, murdering children in mass numbers with fire from the sky, etc is the same as killing soldiers (thus, again, our response to Pearl Harbor, as one example). By being pulled into this stupid dichotomy Christians end up supporting all sorts of homicidal atrocities because they are not pacifism and we all know pacifism is wrong.
- Without war there would be no civilization. Civilization merely survives war; it is war that depends on civilization. It is production and trade that provides the food and tools and men that war requires. War relies on civilization; civilization never relies on war. Yes, specific groups need defense from other specific groups. But that doesn’t mean that war gets the credit. When someone uses this argument they are typically doing so because they want to justify aggression and conquest. For an argument the supports national self-defense, it is overkill.
- War is right because God wants the government to defend the people. Sure, but God also specifically prohibited any king from building up a standing army or assembling a war machine (remember horses are tanks and F-16s). Yes, the people were supposed to defend themselves, and the government could lead and help in that process, but the people themselves were supposed to fight. No one was supposed to rely on a standing army and a peacetime arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Nor were they supposed to be transported to the other side of the planet in the name of an infinitely elastic definition of “the national interest.”
- I should defend my neighbor when he is attacked; so our country should go to war to right wrongs. First of all, if your neighbor is being attacked by an enemy you can do something about, then yes, you should help. But I don’t think you are obligated to go on a suicide mission that will only get your whole family killed. Secondly, the whole point of modern war is that it is far away from any personal knowledge or influence. You are told that they were killing preemie babies by taking away their life support units to leave them gasping and dying. You are told they have weapons of mass destruction they can bring to our Eastern seaboard by unmanned aircraft. When you can’t see for yourself what is going on the people who want your money and your blood are able to lie to you and make you think the country is facing a simple situation akin to seeing a neighbor attacked. Don’t let your real duty to love your neighbor be baited and switched into support mass slaughter overseas.
- We must go to war to prevent the use of WMD. Say citizens of the only country on earth to use the worst of them. (Perhaps I’ll make this its own post some time soon. Obviously, there is more that could be said).
This is only the beginning. What would you add to the list?
Humphrey Carpenter describes Joseph Wright (October 31, 1855-February 27, 1930), J. R. R. Tolkien’s most influential college professor:
Joe Wright was a Yorkshireman, a truly self-made man who had worked his way up from the humblest origins to become Professor of Comparative Philology. He had been employed in a woollen-mill from the age of six, and at first this gave him no chance to learn to read and write. But by the time he was fifteen he was jealous of his workmates who could understand the newspapers, so he taught himself his letters. This did not take very long and only increased his desire to learn, so he went to night-school and studied French and German. He also taught himself Latin and mathematics, sitting over his books until two in the morning and wirsing again at five to set out for work. By the time he was eighteen he felt that it was his duty to pass on his knowledge to others, so he began a night-school in the bedroom of his widowed mother’s cottage, charging his workmates twopence a week for tuition. When he was twenty-one he decided to use his savings to finance a term’s study at a German university, so he took a boat to Antwerp and walked stage by stage to Heidelberg, where he became interested in philology. So this former mill-hand studied Saskrit, Gothic, Old Bulgarian, Lithuanian, Russian, Old Norse, Old Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and Old English, eventually taking a doctorate. Returning to England he established himself in Oxford where he was soon appointed Deputy Professor of Comparative Philology. He could afford the lease of a small house in Norham Road, where he engaged a housekeeper. He lived with the native economy of a true Yorkshireman: he used to drink beer which he bought in a small barrel, but he thought that it went too quickly, so he arranged with Sarah the housedeeper that she should buy it and he should pay for each glass as he consumed it. He continued to work without ceasing, beginning to write a series of language primers, among which was the Gothic book that proved such a revelation to Tolkien…
Obviously, Wright was a genius (though it is not clear that anyone would have known that before he started teaching himself to read a newspaper at the age of fifteen). It is not possible to use Wright as an example of the success that everyone can have. I have no intention of doing so.
But what about an illiterate learning to read his native language as a teenager if he wants to? I don’t see why that shouldn’t be possible for a normal or even a slightly below-average individual.
Whenever I hear people talking about the importance of “education” (i.e. childhood and teen schooling) I think about Joe Wright. What are we telling people when we pump out government messages about staying in school? Are we pushing success? In some cases undoubtedly we are. But we are also saying something else: If you can’t make it in school or if you graduate without acquiring basic skills you are done for. You have no chance.
I think this is a self-fulfilling deception. The majority of forces that keep a person from succeeding are 1) his belief that what he is told is right, that he has no chance, and 2) the fact that a diploma (at whatever level) functions as a license to get a job. I don’t want to fix #2 by outlawing it. But I don’t want my tax dollars used to perpetuate the idea either. If we would get rid of minimum wage laws and other barbaric regulations that punish people for paying other people to do work, then alternative paths to productivity would not be barred. People without the piece of paper could prove themselves in other way to employers.
The entire idea of schooling and education needs to be rethought. In the nineteenth-century education was valued and people would go to school when they could… and they would stop and work to help support their families as well. Under that regime of freedom, the US as an economy and culture did not stagnate but grew tremendously.
We act like this bureaucratic, tax-fed, legally-constructed road we have created is some kind of universal path to prosperity. It isn’t. We need to kick over the fences.
Applying this idea to just one problem, I constantly hear that some zip codes are ruled by horrifying public schools where graduates are not even literate. I hear from the same sources in the same context that the drop-out rate is a scandal.
No. Willingly attending a useless dead-end skinner box ruled by bell signals for moving into the next room is the scandal. No one should put up with it.
Preaching to those “drop-outs” that their lives are now doomed is crocodile tears. Their lives don’t have to be doomed. Stop trying to doom them. Point out the value of education and encourage them to find both jobs and means of learning to better themselves.
I do worry about one potential pitfall in what I am saying. Telling a person that they can still succeed in the future can lead a people to think they don’t need to work hard “yet.” Obviously, that is a foolish attitude. That kind of attitude is addictive with the “success” always staying in the future. I don’t mean to encourage such sloth in any way.