Archive for November, 2008

Equal Rights and Proposition 8

Friday, November 14th, 2008

There has been significant uproar about the supposed violation of rights caused by Proposition 8. Before you believe the hyperbole and start spouting analogies between the gay “rights” movement and the civil rights movement, consider this.

First, some basic distinctions: positive rights, negative rights, and equal rights.

Positive rights theorists argue that people are entitled to stuff (or things if you prefer). These positive rights are usually framed as general slogans: ‘everyone has a right to a good education,’ or ‘everyone has a right to basic food and shelter’ etc. These ‘rights’ sound benevolent and non-controversial when framed in the passive voice. They don’t sound so great when stated more clearly: ‘you have to pay for your neighbors’ kids to be educated,’ or ‘you must give food and shelter to anyone who needs it,’ etc. Thankfully, the Supreme Court has not yet given positive rights theory favorable treatment.

Negative rights theory is founded on individual autonomy and personal responsibility. Rather than detailing supposed entitlements, negative rights describe individual liberty. Negative rights correlate with the natural rights principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These rights are not provided by government; they are an inherent part of being human, and people from all different backgrounds and upbringings recognize them almost instinctively. An easy way to distinguish a negative right from a positive right is to ask whether the questioned right would require the participation of anyone else. Compare the right to life with the right to education. No one else needs to do anything to grant you the right to life. In fact, if every other human being were to disappear, you could still exercise your right to life. Conversely, the ‘right’ to education requires that someone else provide the education. You must enslave someone else to provide you with education because it depends on another’s action.

Equal rights are a little more complex than either positive rights or negative rights. Equal rights derive from the principle that all people should be treated equally under in the law. This clearly does not mean that no distinctions can be made between people. If that were the case criminals could not be imprisoned because that would be unequal treatment. The root of the equal rights principle is that the law may not make distinctions between people without a legitimate reason for doing so. What amounts to a legitimate reason is the subject of endless debate. Some reasons are easily categorized as illegitimate basis for unequal treatment, such as race and religion. Other reasons are clearly legitimate, such as violent behavior harming others.

Equal rights questions become increasingly complex as government expands into more and more areas of human life. For example, there is no natural right to free education, but since government has extended the opportunity to some citizens, equal treatment under the law requires that it extend the same opportunity to all citizens. However, even with education, the government makes distinctions. For example the opportunity for free government education ends once a citizen reaches a certain age.

Now that the terminology is clear, on to the meat of the issue.

Homosexual marriage is an equal rights question. There is clearly no natural right to civil marriage; civil marriage is the formal recognition by the government of an emotional and legal commitment. Since the formal recognition depends on government action, this is not a natural or negative right. So, a right to gay marriage could only be justified under an equal rights argument. However, as explained above, government must treat people equally under the law, but it also must make distinctions between people in determining what equal treatment requires. Many people are deceived into thinking that gays should have an equal right to be married because they do not recognize the legitimacy of the distinction between same homosexual couples and heterosexual couples.

Equal rights arguments do not justify homosexual marriage because of the unique history of civil marriage. Civil marriage was partly a consequence of government entanglement with religion. This entanglement resulted in a number of laws whose primary justification was promoting morality. Many of these laws criminalized sexual behavior that the majority of citizens viewed as immoral, such as fornication, adultery, bigamy, and homosexuality. Many commentators have written about the illegitimacy of laws that prohibit private consensual behavior, but the fact remains that such laws are still on the books. Civil marriage was the product of such laws.

Because of its history, civil marriage embodies a moral judgment by the majority. If someone objects to that moral judgment or the legitimacy of embodying that moral judgment in a government institution, then the proper response is to challenge the institution—civil marriage. The argument would go something like this: marriage is not a proper function of government; it is an entirely private matter between individuals and perhaps churches; therefore, government should stop issuing marriage licenses and abolish any benefit to married couples as such.

To state the problem more clearly, equal protection under the law prohibits the government from making illegitimate distinctions between individuals when applying its laws. Since civil marriage is the product of a majority moral judgment, it is perfectly legitimate for the government to distinguish between marriages that comply with the majority moral judgment and those that do not. If there is dissent from the majority moral judgment, the proper response is to argue against that moral judgment’s embodiment in a civil institution, not to force the majority to adopt a new moral judgment to justify the institution.

Since the only valid reason for government to recognize marriage at all is majoritarian moral judgment, it is irrational to bring an equal rights claim against the government’s use of majoritarian moral judgments as the distinguishing factor when deciding not to recognize homosexual marriage.

Forcing the majority to recognize homosexual marriage contrary to its morals would not reflect equal protection under the laws; it would be the recognition of a positive right to marriage between any consenting adults. I will save detailed explanations for why positive rights theory is illegitimate for another post.

One final argument that I often hear from supporters of homosexual marriage rights is that it isn’t about the moral judgment at all; it is about the tax status, the default inheritance rules, etc. That is completely false. All of those things can be achieved through legal contracts without changing the marriage laws. The real issue is that homosexuals want a stamp of acceptance and approval by the government that says, “this relationship is OK there is nothing wrong with homosexuality.” Since they can’t convince their neighbors that they are right, they want to force the issue in the courts.

A Matter of Trust

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

Political differences can often be explained by where people place their trust. Many religious-minded people claim to place their trust in God. But the old line “actions speak louder than words” may expose some double-tongues. Where do people really put their trust? Not in a happiness-in-the-hereafter context, but in the high-risk difficult decisions of life. A brief glance at our government is revealing. We have created agencies to regulate almost every aspect of our lives. Healthcare, economics, safety, education, food and water, energy, technology, and the list goes on. When there is a crisis, the valiant citizenry’s immediate response is, what is the government going to do about it? We seem willing to trust government to be able to solve every problem in our lives. Is this rational?

Consider as an example the various economic stimulus, bailout, and rescue plans that government has spawned during past few months. Almost without exception, the pundits and politicians have blamed private companies as the cause of the problem and have turned to government intervention for the solution. Even otherwise intelligent individuals who usually harbor a healthy suspicion toward government have set aside their qualms and have jumped on the bandwagon because the companies involved “are just too big to be allowed to fail.” So, hoping to escape the threatened economic doom that the pundits and politicians predict, American citizens swallow the story—hook, line, and sinker.

The true story is not hard to find. Only a few years ago, President William Jefferson Blythe Clinton decided that it would be a smart political maneuver to expand homeownership among low income families. So he used the federal control over the banking industry to force banks to make loans to people that the banks thought would be unable to make their payments. Well, the banks were right and Clinton was wrong. These low-income borrowers were not able to repay their debts, and now the entire financial industry is dry-heaving, trying to cough up the wealth that it naively expected to earn from those bad loans.

When has government ever been worthy of the people’s trust? The driving principle behind the United States Constitution was that government cannot be trusted. The Founders knew that to protect the people, government must be strictly restrained. Yet here we are, with a government that has grown to such an enormous size that it requires trillions of dollars per year to run its multifarious programs. And what are we getting for our money? Quick efficient service? Tranquility and peace? Not unless you are among the politically powerful.

So who are you going to trust? Often when I talk to people about political questions, they tell me about how horrible things would be if government didn’t have all these programs. Some common ones are: if government didn’t have a welfare program then people would be dying in the streets from starvation; if government didn’t fund public education then only the rich would be able to learn and get good jobs; if government didn’t force people to save for retirement through the Social Security program then we would have a bunch of broke old people starving in the midst of plenty; etc. To me at least these arguments sound on the one hand hopelessly naïve and on the other hand inexplicably cynical and arrogant.

Trusting government is naïve because none of these government programs actually work: there are people dying in the streets from starvation now; public education has massively failed to equalize educational opportunities—wealthy people send their kids to private schools and moderately wealthy people just move to areas where there are good public schools—the poor still aren’t taught to reason, read, and write; and the Social Security program is bankrupt. Unconvinced? You think things would be worse if government were not involved? Don’t fool yourself. Government does not produce anything, it does not generate wealth, and it does not create anything. It leeches all that it has from the private citizen. Insofar as government programs have success it is a pale shadow of what the private citizen could do without government’s interference.

Trusting government is cynical and arrogant because such trust depends on the assumption that the rest of humanity is cold-hearted and idiotic. Is it rational to think that people will go through life failing to plan for their futures, failing to seek education, or failing to care for one another? Admittedly some do, but how many of those end up that way because the policies the cynics advocate have trained them to rely on government like a domesticated duck relies on stale bread? In an effort to protect and shelter, these policies imprison people by habituating their beneficiaries to rely on government handouts. Perhaps that is the point. It’s one big joke that the political elite is playing on the rest of the nation: give the people just enough to be content so they don’t excel and become competition.

For the intelligent voters who persist in cynical, arrogant politics, perhaps a better explanation is that they are afraid to assume the moral responsibility they have as members of society to help and lift. It is easier to ignore the poor when they vote away their neighbors’ money to advance a welfare program. It is easier to ignore the elderly when they can coerce their neighbors to pay for Social Security.

Well America, you have spoken. The election results are in, and you have decided to place your trust in government yet again. I don’t share your confidence.