Friday, May 20, 2011

Rights vs. Necessary Goods

After reading my post on rights, a friend posted to my Facebook wall:

“If food and healthcare are not human rights, then why do be punish people for not providing food and healthcare for their children? We call it neglect.

It is understood that some people do not have the ability feed themselves. In a system where food is provided for free for those who could not obtain it otherwise there is a risk that some people will cheat and get free food even when they could somehow obtain it themselves. however in a system where all must fend for themselves there is a risk that some will starve and die in great agony. which risk would you rather take?”

I thought these were excellent questions, and worthy of a response, so here it goes:

If food and healthcare are not human rights, what are they?

As said before, rights are God-given and can be exercised by all people at the same time. There is no action required of a third party in order for me to exercise my rights. Food is not a right, because it must be produced by human action. Food is a good, albeit a good that is absolutely essential for survival. If food were a natural right, that would mean that we are entitled to the labor of the farmer, or the wages of whoever purchases the food. Likewise, healthcare is not a good, but rather a service. Even if I will die without emergency surgery, (as would have been the case several years back when my appendix nearly burst) I would not have had a right to surgery. This is because somebody must provide me with that service. A right to healthcare implies that I have a right to the labor of the surgeon. When one person takes money or productivity from one person and gives it to another person, it is called theft. There is no difference between that and when governments tax the productivity of some citizens in order to give goods and services to other citizens. This, as I will show shortly, doesn't mean that people will starve and die on the streets without some kind of government wealth transfer program.

Why do we punish people for not providing food and healthcare for their children? We call this neglect.

People absolutely should be punished for neglect. It is an obligation of parents to provide food and healthcare for their children. In my view, by bringing life into the world, parents are under an unwritten contract to provide, to the best of their ability, the basic necessities until their offspring are able to fend for themselves. Most parents will do everything they can to provide their children with the best life possible, simply out of love. Those few parents who neglect their duties should be punished. But, as is made plain above, the fact that parents are neglectful in providing necessary goods and services to their children doesn't make those goods and services rights.

People who share my religious beliefs know who King Benjamin was, but for those who need a brief premier, King Benjamin was a king in the Book of Mormon (a book we believe to be scripture) who is most well known for his brilliant discourse found the Book of Mosiah, chapters 2-5. In chapter 3, verses 14-15, King Benjamin explains that the obligations of parents is that they “will not suffer [their] children that they go hungry, or naked; neither will [they] suffer that they transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel one with another, and serve the devil, who is the master of sin, or who is the evil spirit which hath been spoken of by our fathers, he being an enemy to all righteousness. But [they] will teach them to walk in the ways of truth and soberness; [they] will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another.”

Who is responsible to provide food and healthcare for those who cannot produce?

In other words, what happens if parents, or any other person in society, for whatever reason, simply cannot produce anything? For this, I will once again defer to Lysander Spooner and his work, Natural Law:

“Man, no doubt, owes many other moral duties to his fellow men; such as to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, protect the defenceless, assist the weak, and enlighten the ignorant. But these are simply moral duties, of which each man must be his own judge, in each particular case, as to whether, and how, and how far, he can, or will, perform them. But of his legal duty – that is, of his duty to live honestly towards his fellow men – his fellow men not only may judge, but, for their own protection, must judge. And, if need be, they may rightfully compel him to perform it. They may do this, acting singly, or in concert. They may do it on the instant, as the necessity arises, or deliberately and systematically, if they prefer to do so, and the exigency will admit of it.” (Natural Law, Chapter 1, Section II)

It is, therefore, the role of society to provide for the less-fortunate; those who cannot be productive. When I say society, however, I do not mean the Government. I agree with Thomas Paine, who said:

“SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse(blogger's note: 'intercourse' meant free exchange in Thomas Paine's day.), the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.” (Common Sense)

King Benjamin would have agreed. As a king, it is presumed that he could have simply commanded that a tax be levied upon his subjects to care for the poor, but he seemed to think that this was not the role of his government. He said:

“And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just— But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God. For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?” (Mosiah 4:16-19)

We know from the record that King Benjamin was not one who profited at the expense of his subjects, but instead, described himself as one who “labored with mine own hands that I might serve you, and that ye should not be laden with taxes, and that there should nothing come upon you which was grievous to be borne” (Mosiah 2:14)

Do government anti-poverty programs even work?

Government anti-poverty programs have been an absolute failure. Sure, in the United States, we don't see people dying on the streets, and sure, we do have a myriad of so-called anti-poverty legislation, but these programs have been a failure. In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lindon B. Johnson began to wage what he called the “War on Poverty.” In 1900, the poverty rate was around 95%. Between then and1964, it fell to around 15%. Since the 1964 War on Poverty began, the poverty rate has fluctuated between 11% and 15%. This is largely because money was taken out of sectors of the economy that would have given poor people employment, and diverted to subsidizing the non-productive sector. Government welfare programs do not reduce unemployment or poverty, and government healthcare programs do not provide better healthcare.

If not the government, than who?

The exact part of society that should provide healthcare, food, and other “moral obligations” is a little bit more difficult to specifically define. This is because the free market is just as capable of tapping into human generosity as it is human ingenuity. Without government intervention, charities would find even more innovative ways to raise money and provide necessary services to people in need. When private charities provide services, they do so without the corruption and inefficiency that government programs are known for. Government programs have actually taken a substantial amount of money away from charities, because people do not feel obligated to donate to charities when the government is responsible for taking care of the poor. Government action has also pushed much of the pro-bono services out of the healthcare industry. Regarding the effect of the War on Poverty's healthcare programs, historian Allan Matusow writes, “Most of the government medical payments on behalf of the poor compensated doctors and hospitals for services once rendered free of charge or at reduced prices.” As a medical student and resident, congressman Ron Paul worked in a charity hospital in Houston for $3/hour. These hospitals turned nobody down, provided adequate care, and did so by providing valuable experience to new doctors.

In the Church, we feel an obligation to help those among us who are less fortunate. Each month, we fast for two meals, and donate (at least) the cost of two meals to the Church, and that money is used solely to help those in need. The Church Welfare program provides financial assistance, job training, and other services to people in need, and it does so relying entirely on donated funds and largely on donated labor. It includes massive farms which grow and harvest food for the needy, as well as storehouses where people can acquire food at no cost.

Most importantly, it is the Family's responsibility to care for its members who are less fortunate. When the families are unable to, it is the responsibility of churches and other local charities. Finally, it's the responsibility of the rest of society. But as Mr. Spooner said, it is up to the individual to decide to what extent he can or is willing to help. Any forced confiscation and redistribution of resources for this end is theft. It is my sincere belief that society is generous enough to provide for those who are in need without government intervention.


  1. Sound and true words. If parents do not have expectations for their children their children stand a good chance of not amounting to much. If you want someone or a group to act a certain way, condition them to do so, expect it from them, then let them be. "Teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves."

    If the government truely wants to care for the poor, condition the average citizen to contribute his/her time and resources then expect that behavior from them (this is easily done with tax credit and other such things). Currently our government only expects taxes and death from its citizens. It does not expect anything good to come from us nor does it care.