February 25, 2012 4:00 A.M.
The Perversion of Rights
They’re now gifts that a benign king graciously showers upon his subjects.
By Mark Steyn February 25, 2012 4:00 A.M.
Mark Steyn CNN’s John King did his best the other night, producing a question from one of his viewers:
“Since birth control is the latest hot topic, which candidate believes in birth control, and if not, why?”
To their credit, no Republican candidate was inclined to accept the premise of the question. King might have done better to put the issue to Danica Patrick. For some reason, Michelle Fields of the Daily Caller sought the views of the NASCAR driver and Sports Illustrated swimwear model about “the Obama administration’s dictate that religious employers provide health-care plans that cover contraceptives.” Miss Patrick, a practicing Catholic, gave the perfect citizen’s response for the Age of Obama:
“I leave it up to the government to make good decisions for Americans.”
That’s the real “hot topic” here — whether a majority of citizens, in America as elsewhere in the West, is willing to “leave it up to the government” to make decisions on everything that matters. On the face of it, the choice between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church should not be a tough one. On the one hand, we have the plain language of the First Amendment as stated in the U.S. Constitution since 1791: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
On the other, we have a regulation invented by executive order under the vast powers given to Kathleen Sebelius under a 2,500-page catalogue of statist enforcement passed into law by a government party that didn’t even bother to read it.
Commissar Sebelius says that she is trying to “strike the appropriate balance.” But these two things — a core, bedrock, constitutional principle, and Section 47(e)viii of Micro-Regulation Four Bazillion and One issued by Leviathan’s Bureau of Compliance — are not equal, and you can only “balance” them by massively increasing state power and massively diminishing the citizen’s. Or, to put it more benignly, by “leaving it up to the government to make good decisions.”
Some of us have been here before. For most of the last five years, I’ve been battling Canada’s so-called “human rights” commissions, and similar thought police in Britain, Europe, and elsewhere. As I write this, I’m in Australia, to talk up the cause of free speech, which is, alas, endangered even in that great land. In that sense, the “latest hot topic” — the clash between Obama and American Catholics — is, in fact, a perfect distillation of the broader struggle in the West today. When it comes to human rights, I go back to 1215 and Magna Carta — or, to give it its full name, Magna Carta Libertatum. My italics: I don’t think they had them back in 1215. But they understood that “libertatum” is the word that matters. Back then, “human rights” were rights of humans, of individuals — and restraints upon the king: They’re the rights that matter: limitations upon kingly power. Eight centuries later, we have entirely inverted the principle: “Rights” are now gifts that a benign king graciously showers upon his subjects — the right to “free” health care, to affordable housing, the “right of access to a free placement service” (to quote the European Constitution’s “rights” for workers). The Democratic National Committee understands the new school of rights very well: In its recent video, Obama’s bureaucratic edict is upgraded into the “right to contraception coverage at no additional cost.” And, up against a “human right” as basic as that, how can such peripheral rights as freedom of conscience possibly compete?
The transformation of “human rights” from restraints upon state power into a pretext for state power is nicely encapsulated in the language of Article 14 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which states that everyone has the right “to receive free compulsory education.” Got that? You have the human right to be forced to do something by the government.
Commissar Sebelius isn’t the only one interested in “striking the appropriate balance” between individual liberty and state compulsion. Everyone talks like that these days. For Canada’s Chief Censor, Jennifer Lynch, freedom of expression is just one menu item in the great all-you-can-eat salad bar of rights, so don’t be surprised if we’re occasionally out of stock. Instead, why not try one of our tasty nutritious rights du jour? Like the human right to a transsexual labiaplasty, or the human right of McDonald’s employees not to have to wash their hands after visiting the bathroom. Commissar Lynch puts it this way: “The modern conception of rights is that of a matrix with different rights and freedoms mutually reinforcing each other to build a strong and durable human rights system.”
That would be a matrix as in some sort of intricate biological sequencing very few people can understand? Or a Matrix as in the illusory world created to maintain a supine citizenry by all-controlling government officials? The point is, with so many pseudo-“rights” bouncing around, you need a bigger and bigger state: Individual rights are less important than a “rights system” — i.e., a government bureaucracy.
This perversion of rights is killing the Western world. First, unlike real rights — to freedom of speech and freedom of religion — these new freedoms come with quite a price tag. All the free stuff is free in the sense of those offers that begin “You pay nothing now!” But you will eventually. No nation is rich enough to give you all this “free” stuff year in, year out. Spain’s government debt works out to $18,000 per person, France’s to $33,000, Greece’s to $39,000. Thank God we’re not Greece, huh? Er, in fact, according to the Senate Budget Committee, U.S. government debt is currently $44,215 per person. Going by the official Obama budget numbers, it will rise over the next ten years to $75,000. As I say, that’s per person: 75 grand in debt for every man, woman, and child, not to mention every one of the ever-swelling ranks of retirees and disabled Social Security recipients — or about $200,000 per household.
So maybe you’re not interested in philosophical notions of liberty vs. statism — like Danica Patrick, tens of millions of people are happy to “leave it up to the government to make good decisions.” Maybe you’re relatively relaxed about the less theoretical encroachments of Big Government — the diversion of so much American energy into “professional services,” all the lawyering and bookkeeping and paperwork shuffling necessary to keep you and your economic activity in full compliance with the Bureau of Compliance. But at some point no matter how painless the seductions of statism, you run up against the hard math: As those debt per capita numbers make plain, all this “free” stuff is doing is mortgaging your liberty and lining up a future of serfdom.
I used to think that the U.S. Constitution would prove more resilient than the less absolutist liberties of other Western nations. But the president has calculated that, with Obamacare, the First Amendment and much else will crumble before his will. And, given trends in U.S. jurisprudence, who’s to say he won’t get his way? That’s the point about all this “free” stuff: Ultimately, it’s not about your rights, but about his.
— Mark Steyn, a National Review columnist, is the author of After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. © 2012 Mark Steyn