Rights and Needs

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A thoughtful reader recently wrote to ask whether, in my view, any citizen of an American state “needs” an “assault weapon.”

Setting aside the artificial definition of “assault weapon,” the issue is this: man’s rights are not dependent upon his needs (at least not in the way my reader implied).

Consider the case of a crusading Republican putative messiah, not the Commander-in-Chief but rather the federal Surgeon General, Richard H. Carmona.

As reported by the Washington Post, the Mommy State’s tolerant top-doc testified:

at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on smokeless tobacco and “reduced risk” tobacco products [that] he would “support the abolition of all tobacco products.”

How thoughtful of him.

As an aside, one wonders whether the Commerce committee of the federal Congress will compensate tobacco companies and tobacco farmers for putting them out of business, if such a ban were enacted.

One also wonders where the health commies would come up with the money, even if they did decide to provide compensation for such a deprivation of the right to grow and sell tobacco. Wait, I’ve guessed it: taxes! But taxes on products other than tobacco, which tobacco taxes currently fund significant portions of state budgets (not to mention the odd professional sports stadium in Cleveland).

The tolerant doctor Carmona, at any rate, went on to state as follows: “If Congress chose to go that way, that would be up to them. But I see no need for any tobacco products in society.”

Which, of course, misses the point entirely.

Must there be a “need” for tobacco in order for tobacco to be beyond the power of the prohibitionist state? Must I “need” tobacco in some strict, presumably biological (and not merely psychological) sense, which need cannot be controlled by prescription drugs forced on me by the government like Ritalin, in order to have the right to use tobacco? No.

Similarly, it is not necessary that I “need” an AK-47 in order for me to be entitled to own and shoot an AK-47.

In both the case of tobacco and firearms (and alcohol, to round out the bailiwick of the federal BATF), it is specious to contend that political rights can only flow from absolute necessity, i.e., from “need.”

As the prohibitionist Dr Carmona’s remarks indicate, if “needs” are required to justify rights, one can expect the state to take a very narrow view of what any man “needs.” Farewell tobacco. Farewell firearms. Farewell alcohol. And who knows what else. If Al Gore ever gets elected, perhaps automobiles. As in the seminal free exercise case, Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), perhaps government will once again criminalize private and religious schools. After all, does anyone “need” to be taught in a religious institution?

As the Supreme Court explains in Society of Sisters,

The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.

Similarly, adults (those who procreate to make the children over which they have rights concerning educational decisions) have the right to smoke or not to smoke.

That government which would deny the very idea of individual rights denies liberty, and thereby denies its own legitimacy. As the Society of Sisters court put it, liberty is that “upon which all governments in this Union repose.”

The rights of men are not dependent upon any prior showing of need. Men, by nature, have the right to consume products (such as tobacco), and the right to own property (such as firearms). They are free to decide how much, if any, of such products they “need.”

Who needs a federal doctor to control their lives? Nobody.

Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2003 David Dieteman

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