Thought for Thursday: What’s a Right? *Edited*

This is gonna take a while; you might want to grab yourself some coffee and a comfy seat.

So, my Anam Cara posted this article on his facebook page yesterday and asked me to chime in on it (you don’t have to read it now; I’m going to copy it section by section here in a bit).  It was written by Bill Whittle who is, I gather, a conservative figure; I don’t have much familiarity with him, so I can’t tell you whether he’s got any kind of credibility in that community, but he’s someone I’ve encountered a few times here and there on friends’ websites and facebook walls.

Anyway, the article was published after a presidential debate in October of 2008 during which then-candidate Obama stated that he believed that health care is a right.  Marc and I (and some of Marc’s other friends) were engaged in a long and, frankly, infuriating conversation with another of his friends about the individual mandate (the provision of the ACA which requires everyone to carry health insurance, which this guy is pretty enthusiastically against).  One of my arguments was that we, as a society, have collectively decided (whether we believe it on a person-by-person basis or not) that we will NOT let someone die because they can’t afford the care they need.  I explained to the holdout that he can certainly choose not to participate in the program, but that there is no provision in our society that will exclude him – even by his choice – from, say, emergency care.  He’s welcomed to die alone in his apartment if that’s his wish, but if he gets into a horrifying car wreck (or has a heart attack or an aneurysm in the grocery store), he’s GOING to receive care, whether or not he has the ability to pay for it. That led to a number of us doing some really good, critical thinking about the way that we think about care, and how we’re going to collectively work out how to provide it equally to everyone.

So, Marc asked me to break down this article in the context of that conversation.  I thought it was an interesting exercise both for the content and for the practice (I’m getting back into the classroom next week, and I’m looking for opportunities to exercise my critical brain).  Here goes:

Whittle opens thusly:

During the presidential debate Tuesday night, Barack Obama was asked if he thought health care was a “right.”

He said he thought it was a right. Well, if you accept that premise, I think you can ask some logical follow-up questions: Food is more important than health care. You die pretty quickly without food. Do we have a “right” to food in America? What about shelter? Do we have a “right” to housing?

• Okay – let’s stop right there and have a look at what we’ve got so far.  I’m not entirely sure where Whittle’s objection to food and shelter as rights are coming from – though he’s clearly presenting them as objectionable – and when I brought that up in the facebook post – pointing out that our nation’s charter, the Declaration of Independence, states that we have not only rights, but unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that food (and water) and shelter are required for life – someone else chimed in that the Declaration is not the Constitution.  I have no idea why that matters; the Declaration is, as I said, the charter – the purpose document – for the country and the Constitution is, essentially, the by-laws that help dictate how the government is going to operate in the service to that charter; they are integral to one another.  So, yes; food and shelter ARE rights.

And if we do have a right to housing, what standard of housing do we have a right to? And if it is a right, due to all Americans, wouldn’t that mean that no one should have to accept any housing, or health care, which is inferior to anyone else’s… since it’s a right?

• Here’s where Whittle makes a leap into logical fallacy, however; elevating something to the level of a “right” does NOT mean that a) everyone is “given” anything (which is where I’m assuming his “due to all Americans” comment is going (followed up by the question about “accepting” “inferior” provisions) or b) that everyone is entitled to equal levels of that thing.

For starters, the United States has a long tradition of protecting rights, not necessarily of providing them.  One of the core purposes of government is to level the proverbial playing field in an effort to see to it that all people have equal access to the things they need; the level to which you attain these things depends on a myriad of factors (your socioeconomic status, your gender, your age, your education, etc. etc.).  You may choose to participate or not in programs that offer assistance for these resources if you need them, and people throughout our history have had to “settle” for less than standard access to food and shelter because that’s the best they could do under the conditions in which they found themselves (most often, through no fault of their own.  I’m not going to get into the idea of privilege just now; we’ve got enough to work with as it is).  It comes off as arrogant and privileged for Whittle to pose his “inferior” question the way he does.

In the case of food and water, there should be minimum standards of safety, cleanliness, and nutrition that form a baseline for everyone.  The government has a responsibility to set, maintain, and enforce those standards on producers (we all know how well self-regulation works in nearly any industry, but it’s particularly troubling in food production and water safety).  You may be able to obtain better for yourself, but no one should ever have to settle for worse, and it IS the government’s job to see to it that the minimum is maintained.

Do we have a right to be safe? Do we have a right to be comfortable? Do we have a right to wide-screen televisions? Where does this end?

* Well, that didn’t take long, did it?  He’s clearly reaching here.  Yes, we have a right to be safe.  Why wouldn’t we?  Again, minimum standards; we have laws and law enforcement, we have standards for housing and appliances and toys and vehicles and workplace safety.  Yes, we have that right!  The requirements for safety are essentially the same for every human; the requirements for comfort are not, however, and here’s where Whittle starts to get unreasonable.  *I* require a minimum of 73 degrees to be comfortable and am perfectly happy in the mid 90s; my husband is fine at 60 (and lower) and is miserable in the heat.  Comfort is defined by the individual and is attained through his or her effort.  The question about the television is inflammatory and ridiculous and completely irrelevant, which Whittle goes ahead to admit:

See, by taking something to a ridiculous extreme, we can illuminate the problem here… what is a right? How do we know? What’s the difference between the right to free speech — which is enshrined in the Constitution — versus the “right” to health care, which is not?

• The problem here is that Whittle doesn’t make a distinction between REASONABLE questions and the “ridiculous extreme.”  He’s equating rights to things like food and shelter and safety and health care to questions about comfort and wide-screen T.V.s.  He’s engaging in the false equivalence fallacy here by giving these things equal weight.

What’s more, he’s making a version of the appeal to ignorance when he says that, because the specific right to health care is not spelled out in the Constitution, it cannot be a right.  That’s patently ridiculous, and here’s why.  Let’s imagine a middle school classroom, shall we?  The kids get together with the teacher on the first day and make a list of “classroom rules”  – a common first day activity – in which they agree upon and enumerate things like “we don’t use swear words in this classroom.”  A few weeks later, little Mikey gets pissed off at the teacher for making him read for 10 minutes, so he flips her the bird.  In the principal’s office, Mikey makes his case that he didn’t use a WORD, so he technically didn’t break the classroom contract.  He did – and he knows it – but he’s also correct in his defense (which is why I never wrote out classroom rules).  Whittle’s argument about the presence or absence of an enumerated right in the Constitution doesn’t hold; we have PLENTY of rights that aren’t spelled out in the Constitution, and we have plenty of limits on our freedoms that aren’t in there, either.

Well, back in the day, we would simply say that a right has legal authority — it’s in the Constitution and therefore it’s a not just a right, it’s a birthright. So why shouldn’t we amend the Constitution to include the rights to health care, food, housing, education — all the rest? What’s the difference between the rights we have and the “rights” Obama wants to give us?  

Simply this: Constitutional rights protect us from things: intimidation, illegal search and seizure, self-incrimination, and so on. The revolutionary idea of our Founding Fathers was that people had a God-given right to live as they saw fit. Our constitutional rights protect us from the power of government.

•  Again, with the appeal to ignorance.  I’m not sure about what the distinction between a “right” and a “birthright” is; undocumented immigrants still have rights, and naturalized citizens have rights as Americans following their swearing-in, and there are these things called human rights, so I’m not sure what line Whittle is trying to draw here.  (*Leaving aside the very real case to be made that there’s no such thing as a ‘right’ at all, and that the things we call ‘rights’ are merely privileges that can be revoked under the proper conditions).  If we’re going to agree that ‘rights’ actually exist, it would seem to me that they’re a binary thing; either we have them or we don’t.  The shades of grey that Whittle is trying to call attention to don’t actually exist in the context of the idea of ‘rights’ at all.

More to the point, he’s still stuck on the Constitution as the be-all, end-all for American civic life when that’s simply NOT the case.  Congress has passed untold numbers of laws that affect our day-to-day; some of those laws gave us rights (the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example) and some of them take (or, rather, took) rights away (the Defense of Marriage Act).  Taken a step further, we’re not even living up to the orders of the Constitution; though Congress has passed no law respecting the limits on the freedom of speech, one CAN be prosecuted – in federal court, even! – for one’s speech.  We’ve been subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures for quite some time now (hello?  Warrentless wiretapping?  The current NSA mess?  Anyone?).  Do we REALLY want to have a conversation about intimidation when peaceful protestors are being pepper sprayed and wrestled to the ground and hauled away in handcuffs for singing?  If you’re going to talk the talk, be prepared to explain yourself when you don’t walk the walk.

But these new so-called “rights” are about the government — who the Founders saw as the enemy — giving us things: food, health care, education… And when we have a right to be given stuff that previously we had to work for, then there is no reason — none — to go and work for them. The goody bag has no bottom, except bankruptcy and ruin.

Does that ring a little familiar these days? Because isn’t the danger here that if you’re offered something for nothing… you’ll take it?

•  First of all, the Founders DID NOT see the government as “the enemy.”  They understood – perhaps far more than we living now ever will – that there’s a very real danger of overreach and tyranny when too much power is concentrated in the hands of too few, but they also understood that some form of organization and guidance was required for a people to live together in peaceable and productive ways.  For crying out loud; these guys formed a congress before we were even an official country, so ease off on the anarchist talk, okay?  Government is not a boogie monster, and the Founders knew that.  Gah.

Further, it’s NOT ABOUT THE GOVERNMENT GIVING US THINGS.  We’ve already established that one of the government’s primary roles is to ensure equal access to the things which help us succeed as a people.  If we do a close reading of the Preamble to the Constitution, it very clearly states that the purpose of the government is to “establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense [and] promote the general welfare (emphasis mine).  I’m certain that things like food, water, shelter, education and healthcare fall very clearly under that provision.  For someone who’s so enthusiastic about what the Constitution does or does not say, I find it curious that Whittle doesn’t seem to take this important bit into consideration.

Where is the evidence that people will somehow stop working because of universal health care?  Here’s another example of argument from ignorance (Whittle really likes that one): he’s assuming facts not in evidence by basically saying IF people get “free” health care, THEN people will stop working.

Look, I know the system gets played.  I know people – like, personally know people – who game the system.  Part of the problem with the system is that it’s designed to be played that way, which doesn’t make the gaming right, but does make it necessary.  For example; in order for, say, someone to keep their disability insurance, they need to keep their income under a certain level because exceeding that level, even by a dollar, cuts that person off from vital medication and services that that one dollar over the limit wouldn’t even begin to cover.  That person chooses not to engage in activity that would increase his or her salary to the point where the disability is threatened (cutting that person off from necessary medications and therapies).  If we’re going to get serious about keeping people from cheating the system, we need to make the system much more reasonable and humane than it currently is.

Further, I can’t honestly say that I know ANYONE who works JUST to get health insurance (edited to include that I am in no way saying that this never happens; I just don’t personally know anyone for whom this is true).  There are plenty of things that motivate people to employment, but I’m not sure that healthcare is even in the top 5 in the list of reasons most people work.  In the context of this discussion, this isn’t even a valid point to make because the ACA is mostly a restructuring of a system that already exists; the law is just an effort to make it a) more accessible (there’s that equal access thing again…) and b) more efficient, cost-effective, and humane.

And now, for the big finish:

Only it’s not something for nothing. “Free” health-care costs us something precious, and no less precious for being invisible. Because there’s a word for someone who has their food, housing and care provided for them… for people who owe their existence to someone else.

And that word is “slaves.”

Really?  No… REALLY?!  Universal healthcare equals slavery?  Really?  First of all, “free” healthcare isn’t free – and I DO NOT understand how the Obamacare haters just can’t seem to get this through their fear-fevered brains; WE ALREADY PAY FOR HEALTHCARE FOR THE UNINSURED, and we pay for a LOT more than we should have to BECAUSE they don’t get basic services.  A healthy person is a LOT cheaper to care for than a sick person.  I WANT my insurance premiums to help poor people get vaccinations and well-baby visits.  I WANT the government to promote the general welfare by promoting public health, safety, and wellness standards.  Everyone does better when everyone does better, and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why some people are so enthusiastically, morally, and practically religiously opposed to giving other, less fortunate people a hand up.  I think that’s what really bothers me about this whole article; there’s an underlying message of mistrust, anger, and hatred running through it (and the whole of the anti-Obamacare argument) that basically tells people that they deserve to be neglected; that they’re lazy and incompetent and useless, and if they’re poor and sick, well,  it’s their own damned fault; that they should get off their fat asses and pull themselves up from their bootstraps, just like everyone else.  What this attitude fails to consider is the idea of privilege.  “No one ever gave me anything!” says the guy who grew up in a white, middle class home, got a decent education just by virtue of where he grew up, then went to college with government-backed loans and got a decent job because his privilege put him in a position to be hired by a company that pays a living wage.

Healthcare is not slavery.  Food assistance is not slavery.  Disability programs are not slavery.  Giving people a leg up when they’re members of disadvantaged populations is not slavery.

The kind of thinking that Whittle’s promoting, though?  THAT I’m not so sure about.


Okay, so here’s where I get back to the conversation I was having about the ACA’s individual mandate (which, not for nothing, was a Republican idea.  All KINDS of prominent Republicans were ALL FOR IT until, you know, the black Democrat got hold of it and actually made it work.  Sorry.. where was I?  Oh!  Right!).  We’ve decided, as Americans – as human beings, even –  that people DO deserve to be cared for.  We’re ALREADY doing that; if you drop on the street, or you get into a car accident, or you show up at an ER with an illness or an injury, YOU WILL BE CARED FOR.  The level of the care you receive will very widely depending on a zillion different factors, but efforts will be made on your behalf to keep you alive/make you well again whether or not you have the ability to pay for that care.

The cost for caring for those who cannot (or do not) pay is already being born by those of us who can (and do).  This is why our insurance premiums have been steadily rising and why we’re charged $8 for an aspirin in the ER and why basic tests cost far more in this country than they do in places where they’ve mostly figured the universal healthcare thing out.  Putting everyone into the insurance pool does a number of things; it works to lower costs across the board (collective entities have much more bargaining power than individuals), it helps to ensure that the quality of care is consistent, and it demands that everyone has equal access to the kinds of care they need (there’s that pesky equal access idea again).

*Edited to include* Mr. Chili and I were driving home from dinner tonight, and we got into a conversation which made relevant my reading him this post.  The point that he asked me to make, in addition to what I’ve already said here, is that, with EXTREMELY rare exceptions, no one lives entirely on his or her own.  “I’d be dead in a month,” he said, “if I weren’t part of the larger collective.”  He’s right; we are dependent on the grid, we don’t grow our own food, and I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to go from, say, a live chicken in the yard to a chicken in a stew pot.  The fact that we are no longer homesteaders – that we have developed into an inter-connected society where everyone participates in different ways and contributes different skills and services – means that we cannot take a literal reading of the Constitution (which, he maintains – rightly, I think – was never intended to be taken literally in the first place).  It’s a flexible document, intended to grow and change as the country did, but Mr. Chili feels (again, rightly, I think) that too many people view the Constitution as they view the Bible; they pull out the bits they LIKE (‘the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed’) and just ignore the inconvenient bits (‘A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State’).  I’ve already heard the arguments of what the Founders meant by “happiness,” and to that I say, if we’re going to go with the 18th century definitions for SOME things, we’re going to have to go with them for ALL things, which means you can have all the balls and muskets that you want.

Thinking people understand that, unless you’re living off the grid and TRULY making your own life, you are inextricably linked to your neighbors, both literal and figurative.  The cost for participation in a society is figuring out how to make things as fair and equitable and safe as possible.  The arguments against considering as rights things like food, water, shelter, health care, and education is mean spirited and ignorant, and I’ve yet to hear someone make a compelling argument that it isn’t.



Filed under Civics on Saturday, compassion and connection, concerns, critical thinking, doing my duty, duh!, dumbassery, frustrations, health, ideas and opinions, politics, ruminating, social issues, technical difficulties, this is NOT a drill, Worries and Anxieties, WTF?!

4 responses to “Thought for Thursday: What’s a Right? *Edited*

  1. Just a point to the people working for health insurance. While I’m not certain I know anyone personally right now who is working solely for health insurance I know several people working the types of jobs and the specific jobs they have solely so they and their families will retain insurance. I even know some small businesses that have made deals with employees who want to leave to pursue other careers (usually freelance work) so that the employee works x hours per month solely for the privilege of staying on the insurance policy of the employer, even if that means the employee is paying their full premium. It’s a relatively common thing and it’s keeping a lot of people from changing jobs, from improving their skills, and from speaking up about grievances in the workplace, they can’t afford to be without insurance. From a blogging perspective, I’ve seen anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is an especially prevalent mode of survival for parents with special needs kids. Sometimes a special needs kid would do well with a parent who could work fewer hours but that parent is the one working the job that has the insurance that covers what they need for the kid while the main breadwinner’s job may not provide insurance that covers the best practices for their child. Health insurance is a racket. If we can somehow level that playing field I think a lot of other things will have the opportunity to fall into place. Good things. Perhaps even….small government things.

    • Fair enough, Kizz. I’m not sure I personally know anyone in this position, but I HAVE heard the points you make here in other forums. I also know a lot of people who can’t leave their jobs because they’re afraid they won’t find another (and thereby lose their insurance).

  2. What many are not seeing is that Obama is not pushing something that will hurt folks or businesses. In many ways, he and Congress have made amendments to allow for an adjustment period. This is a well thought out post; I would not expect anything else from you. This New Deal type program will continue to be attacked from the right. I do not think it is a matter that they do not want to help sick people; it is a matter that their church or local community should do it. And we all know that will not happen.

    • It’s not that help from churches or local communities won’t happen, it’s just that it won’t happen equitably nor on the scale that’s required.

      Honestly, what I’m hearing from the right is that they want individuals to “take care of themselves.” The assumption is that people who struggle are always personally responsible not only for their condition, but for lifting themselves out of it. Since when in our culture did it become a mark of shame to need or accept help, and since when did it become so frightening or offensive for some to offer it?

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