Rights, Obligations, and Ignorant Libertarians

Oh, Rand Paul. What are we going to do with you?

I'll tell you in a moment what I'm referring to. But first: One of the principal functions parties serve is that they act as a heuristic, or cognitive shortcut, for voters. If you have to vote for someone to serve on your city council and you know nothing about the candidates, you can use party as a proxy and you'll be right almost all the time. You can also look to your party to see where you should come down on issues. It doesn't necessarily make you lazy; sometimes it's just efficient to look to others with values similar to yours for cues about what policies are worthwhile. We can't all be experts on everything. In a similar way, parties give people who run for office a set of policy positions they can adopt without having to know everything about anything a lawmaker might have to address.

But if you call yourself a libertarian, you're saying that parties aren't enough for you, even if you're a Republican. Instead, you're motivated by a philosophical perspective to which you've given some serious thought. Every libertarian in politics, including Rand Paul, presents themselves this way. They're concerned with ideas. So if you're going to define yourself by a philosophy, isn't it incumbent upon you to at least have an idea of what that philosophy implies, and a grasp of some basic philosophical concepts—for instance, like what a right is—so that you can talk about them with some modicum of sense when they come up, as they inevitably will?

Apparently not. Here's Paul in a new National Review article:

"There's a philosophic debate which often gets me in trouble, you know, on whether health care's a right or not," Paul, in a red tie, white button-down shirt, and khakis, tells the students from the stage. "I think we as physicians have an obligation. As Christians, we have an obligation. . . . I really believe that, and it's a deep-held belief," he says of helping others.

"But I don't think you have a right to my labor," he continues. "You don't have a right to anyone else's labor. Food's pretty important, do you have a right to the labor of the farmer?"

Paul then asks, rhetorically, if students have a right to food and water. "As humans, yeah, we do have an obligation to give people water, to give people food, to give people health care," Paul muses. "But it's not a right because once you conscript people and say, 'Oh, it's a right,' then really you're in charge, it's servitude, you're in charge of me and I'm supposed to do whatever you tell me to do. . . . It really shouldn't be seen that way."

Oh dear. Paul is obviously unaware of this, but saying that health care is a right doesn't mean that doctors have to treat people without being paid, any more than saying that education is a right means that public school teachers have to work for free. Because we all agree that education is a right, we set up a system where every child can be educated, whether their families could afford to pay for it themselves or not. It doesn't mean that any kid can walk up to a teacher in the street and say, "I command you to teach me trigonometry for free. Be at my house at 9 tomorrow. You must do this, because I have a right to education and that means I am in charge of you and you're supposed to do whatever I tell you to do."

All this talk of "servitude" and "conscription" is just baffling. The only way I can interpret it is that libertarianism is something Paul picked up from his dad, and it seems to go over well with Republicans when he mentions it, but he hasn't spent any time thinking about it.

I don't know if the 2016 Republican presidential contest is going to be quite the nincompoop parade that 2012 was. But I wouldn't be surprised if Rand Paul presents himself as the candidate with the big ideas. Make of that what you will.

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