Friday, October 5, 2012

Natural rights and social contract

The Teaparty advocates of natural rights limit their approval, it seems to me, to the negative rights. They don't want the government to interfere; but they also don't want the government to provide freedoms and entitlements that expand the social contract beyond its early days. The Founding fathers created, first, the Articles of Confederation. That made a hopelessly crippled central government. They replaced the Articles with the today's constitution, where the central government was also deprived of some power. Teapartyers today regard the latter, sometimes, as almost a holy document, while also imagining it to be as weak as the Articles. Now, I'd say that most Teapartyers do want most of the new entitlements, but they have been led to idealize powerlessness by a modern set of anarchists.

Since those early days, there has been an extensive re-working and re-writing of the social contract. It was necessary to accommodate 200 years of history. A.  Farmers are no longer 90% of the population. B. The needs and the ills of urbanization would have torn apart the country, if there were job entitlements and protections. C. Science and philosophy created new conditions, and new contradictions; doing nothing would have violated basic principles of fairness. Major changes arose or were justified when the Declaration of Independence was added as a “basic document” of our meaning of freedom and fairness. The vast increase in the wealth of society is another main source of evolution of rights and entitlements.

If someone mentions the point, I'm willing to accept that the Constitution should be re-written explicitly, or at least have some new amendments, to make it easier for the national government to do what it it needs to do. Is it really efficient to enforce a national mandate by bribing the states with federal funding, and coerce them by threatening to withhold it? But, further, I want to say, If you don't like the way that the Constitution has been re-interpreted over the years, what is needed is a set of amendments that formalize the necessary changes. It is hostile and stupid to try to throw out the newer 200 years of social contract.

Mitt Romney, in the infamous May “47%” tape, sneers at people thinking that they are entitled to health care, food and a roof over their head. As a wealthy industrial state, do we want to allow people to starve or be forced to live under bridges? I'd say that the answer is No, but that is not the consequence of his answer. We have pretty minor assurances, so far, for health, food, and shelter. We have a longer history of some other entitlements, like public schools, good roads, firemen, policemen, safe jobs. There is a shorter history of safe food, safe water, clean air, but all those are proper expectations of modern civilization.

At the root, the problem is that “paying for them” is an impediment to one's private enjoyment of wealth (worship of Mammon?). The overt excuses are separate and diverse, and never impressive. In some recent rhetoric, they implicitly class all “government jobs” as inherently fake-jobs, as compared to “private industry”, so they favor privatization. Teapartyers in Congress have resisted Obama's attempts at job creation/preservation following those rationales. They have opposed federal Recession help for localities to fund police and firemen, and national building of needed infrastructure as stimulus.

We need schools. We have free, public schools, with some standards for education. Teapartyers prefer home-schooling and charter schools, especially if they can avoid standards that teachers' unions tend to insist on, like, decent teaching of evolution, climate science, or sex education. Teapartyers have lately recorded successes in both breaking teachers' unions and in funding charter schools (unusually non-union).

We have public roads. Eisenhower justified the national roads system under the excuse of national defense. I suspect that we will yet see costly failures from the privatization of turnpikes.

Workers have the right to decent hours and conditions. – The protection agencies are among the primary targets of the Teaparty.

Cleveland has the right to a river that does not catch on fire; Pittsburgh has a right to breathable air. Generally, fishes should have a right to rivers that are liveable, and wildlife should have a right to natural environments. However, the Teaparty faction seems to be broadly committed to ending the EPA, with no mention of preserving its functions.

Up til Obamacare, we had a minimal level of health-care entitlement. Ron Paul was not well received when he presented the Libertarian position, that emergency rooms should not provide unpaid-for life-saving care.. I imagine that most Teapartyers do not recognize that this entitlement, as an enforceable entitlement, only dates to the 1980s, as a provision for accepting Medicare payments. (Justice Alito sniffed at a mention of this during the Obamacare case, it was reported, “And how did that happen?”) Emergency room care (only) for life-threatening emergencies (only) is inefficient, insufficient for decent health, and far behind the entitlement offered by every other advanced country.

Two other aspects of health entitlement – and social contract – deserve mention. Parents have duties towards the health of their kids, regardless of their own personal religious prejudices; children are no longer dependent property which can be treated howsoever the parents prefer. Parents cannot avoid certain vaccinations for their children. Further, they cannot deny care for critically ill children. I have not seen the Teaparty attack this part of the new social contract, unlike their visible successes against unions, public schools, and the right to an abortion.

These rights for children arose after children were recognized as having independent rights as human beings. I think it is similar to the rationale by which wives are no longer as the property of their husbands; they are independent human beings, with rights of self-determination. I wonder how many of today's young people know that child abuse practically did not “exist” before the 1950s, because the rights of parents were exclusive. We see very rare cases, these days, where parents justify injuries as the result of (literally) “beating the devil out of” a child. Teapartyers include these people but I haven't seen any fight on this issue... except, say, for the revival of physical punishment in schools (Texas, today's news report).

Somewhat similarly, it is more recent than that when it was established (generally, I think, but I am not sure) that a husband could be charged with raping his own wife. “Ownership” is no longer the accepted social contract. Here's another place where the Teapartyers have not been shouting, but their war on autonomy of women leaves me wondering how far they will go.

Women have a right to abortion. Women have a right to birth control.... which was illegal in many states until the Supreme Court expanded on a “right to privacy” which itself is derivative. These aspects of women's autonomy are particular targets of the Fundamentalist core of the Teaparty. This is seen in the last two years in dozens of laws proposed at the national level, and dozens enacted among hundreds proposed in Republican states. Several states have enacted the pre-abortion requirement of “trans-vaginal ultrasonic probes” as a form of harassment for those using their right to an abortion. And Romney (following his competitors) endorses a Person-hood Amendment, as does his formal party platform.

Unlike some newer constitutions, which are modeled on such things as UN Declaration of Rights, the US Constitution does not explicitly guarantee these rights; and it riles some people to see 220 years of the government taking on new “powers”. Well, the interpretation of the constitution has evolved. It might be neater if the Constitution did spell out more federal powers, during this time that the social contract evolved, and the notion of rights and entitlements evolved. It does spell out those rights in a series of Supreme Court decisions.

The Teaparty has listened to anarchists and concluded that taxes are bad; therefore government is bad; and let's get rid of them all. I can't see how that is compatible with maintaining civilization.

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