Jonah Goldberg and the Meaning of Rights

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his article “The
Libertarian Lobe
,” Jonah Goldberg expressed glee that he had
trapped a young libertarian woman with what he calls his “tried-and-true
trick question”:

asked her something to the effect of: ‘Imagine a very close friend
of yours were suicidal. She just broke up with her boyfriend, lost
her job, had been drinking, and is depressed. If you knew she would
feel better in the morning, would you physically restrain her to
keep her from killing herself?'”

went on to say, “Now the correct answer, of course, is ‘Well, yes,
I would.'” Therefore, since it’s moral for one person to interfere
with the liberty of another person, Goldberg reasoned, it’s entirely
proper for government, especially a representative democracy, to
do so as well.

reasoning is faulty and fallacious, but it also reflects why conservatives
have come to embrace the paternalistic welfare state in American

I see a loved one about to swallow a bottle of sleeping pills, I
(like Goldberg) might very well step in and use force to stop her.
But that doesn’t mean I have a right to do so. By initiating force
against the person, I have violated her right to live her life any
way she chooses, even if it’s to engage in the ultimate self-destructive
act of suicide.

example that Goldberg uses is one of a person who is terribly depressed
and of “unsound mind,” which makes it easier for us to violate her
right to be left alone. But what about a person who is of perfectly
sound mind — a person, for example, who is dying of painful, incurable
cancer and who wishes to take her own life? Do I or Goldberg have
the right to handcuff her and keep her restrained until she dies
the way we want her to die? Libertarians would say, “No.” Conservatives
would say, “Of course.”

another example. Suppose a hiker and his family have become lost
and are about to die of hunger and thirst. They come across a cottage
that is locked, vacant, and full of food and drink. Is it moral
for them to break into the house and steal the provisions?

and conservatives alike might say, “Yes.” But the difference between
us is critical: Libertarians would say that while it’s moral for
them to do so in order to save their lives, they have no *right*
to do so. They will be responsible for reimbursing the owner for
any damages they cause, including reimbursement for the food and
drink that they have consumed.

on the other hand, would argue that the hikers’ need is converted
into a right. Because it’s moral for the hikers to sustain their
lives, Goldberg would argue, they now have a right to someone else’s
food and drink.

when someone has the need to survive, conservatives now reason,
those with money and property have a duty to furnish whatever is

it’s not difficult to see how Republicans have arrived at a full-scale
endorsement of the paternalistic welfare state and regulated society.
(In his article, Goldberg suggested that there is a difference between
conservatives and Republicans but, interestingly, didn’t state what
that difference is.)

the drug war. Since drugs are harmful, Goldberg would claim that
he has a right to use force to stop a loved one from imbibing alcohol,
smoking cigarettes, and snorting cocaine. Since he has that right,
so does the government. Voilá! — the DEA and the war on
drugs, so beloved of conservatives everywhere.

consider Social Security, a program that conservatives used to oppose
on both moral and economic grounds. Since a loved one who doesn’t
save money for his old age is obviously harming himself, Goldberg
would claim that he has the moral duty to force him to save for
his own good. And if Goldberg can use force in this instance, then
what’s wrong with government’s doing so? Thus, we now have the spectacle
of conservatives embracing the socialism of Social Security.

why should Goldberg be the only one who has the moral duty to help
others who are in need? Doesn’t everyone have such a moral duty?
Well, of course, which is why Republicans now endorse a political
and economic system in which government force is used to take money
from those who have in order to redistribute it to those who need.
But, hey, it’s not called “socialism” anymore, it’s called “compassionate

decades ago, Republicans had a clear, well-defined vision of the
nature of morality and rights and a strong commitment to liberty.
Unfortunately, as public opinion started to move against them, they
threw in the towel and accepted the premises of the socialistic
welfare state and regulated society, primarily in the quest for
“legitimacy” and political power. The only difference between conservatives
and leftists today is that conservatives continue to cloak their
approval of socialism in the garb of “free markets, private property,
and limited government.”

vexes conservatives so much is that libertarians have maintained
our commitment to the principles of morality and liberty above all
else. The primary reason conservatives wish that libertarians would
go away is that we remind them of what they once were and still
should be.

28, 2001

Hornberger [send him mail] is
president of The Future of Freedom

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