Jonah Goldberg and the Meaning of Rights

In 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”:

“I 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?'”

Goldberg 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.

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

If 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.

The 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.”

Consider 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?

Libertarians 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.

Conservatives, 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.

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

Thus, 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.)

Consider 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.

Or 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.

Indeed, 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 conservatism.”

Many 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.”

What 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.

June 28, 2001