At the core of a good chunk of the political disputes between libertarians and their conservative sympathizers on the one hand, and progressive leftists and secularists on the other, is the question of rights. What are they? Where do they come from? How are they exercised? How are they protected?
In the classical liberal view, which is also the Catholic view, natural rights are corollaries to natural laws. Our rights to life, liberty, and private property derive from our obligations to preserve our lives and those of our family, to educate our children, and to obey the moral law. These obligations are imposed upon us by God. The modern libertarian has lost sight of the connection between natural law and right, but insofar as he defends natural rights as they are articulated in the Declaration of Independence, which at least acknowledges a “Creator”, he stands in the Christian natural law tradition.
In the view of those who call themselves progressives or leftists today, rights are simply whatever people desire and believe they are entitled to. For example, heterosexuals never created a “right” to marry. Marriage is considered a “right” only insofar as it is necessary to fulfill an obligation, in this case, to be fruitful and multiply, and to avoid the sin of fornication.
But radical homosexuals have demanded a “right” to marry. From whence does such a “right” arise? There is no natural obligation to have a romantic relationship with someone; to have a romantic relationship publicly recognized as something “normal” or even praiseworthy is a privilege. We have seen the same phenomenon with feminism, with various minority ethnocentrisms, and others: they never seem to acknowledge or admit that they want equal (or superior) privileges with men, or with whites. They conflate privilege and right, and believe somehow that they have a right to a privilege, or at at least to live in a society in which there are no privileges at all. Whether or not their ought to be privileges is one question; whether or not they could ever actually be abolished, at least without the mass murder and mayhem that typically accompanies communist revolutions, is another.
Things get uglier when we consider scarce goods and services. Many Catholics, for instance, have bought into the notion that “health care is a basic right.” Of course everyone has a right to healthcare, insofar as they have a right to exchange their private property for that particular batch of goods and services. The “right to healthcare”, properly understood, is subsumed under private property rights. But we know that this isn’t what is meant by those who say that “health care is a basic human right.” They mean that everyone is entitled to a specific batch of goods and services.
It is simply absurd to think that something that has only been available for mass production and consumption for the past century can be considered a “basic human right”, and that a situation of profound injustice exists whenever and wherever someone does not possess it. The same reasons that prevent everyone from having immediate possession of top of the line health care today are those which prevailed a thousand years ago, and they are summed up in a word: scarcity. We don’t take this seriously today because our imaginations have been stimulated, wildly so I would say, by what modern methods of production and distribution appear to make possible.
So wildly stimulated has the human imagination become, in fact, that it would even seek to arrest the very process that made such possibilities imaginable in the first place, the process of free-market capitalism. In the 19th century, men such as Marx were ready to declare capitalism as a completed historical stage on the progressive super-highway to a communist utopia before it barely even got off the ground. Several dozen failed dictatorships and tens of millions of corpses later, we ought to have realized that the progressive narrative was fatally flawed. We almost did, in fact. Some went so far as to say that we had reached “the end of history.”
But in spite of horrible fiscal problems, despite the fact that national healthcare systems the world over are showing signs of serious strain for various reasons, the fanatical entitlement mentality continues. We are lectured on what “ought” to be without any consideration of what “is”, another “ought/is” problem if you want to put it that way.
The problem of scarcity is thought to be avoidable by forcing everyone to pay into the health care system. After all, the one limitless resource, in the mind of a progressive as well as a bureaucrat, is the pocket of the taxpayer. But there is a price to be paid here as well – a political price, in the form of widespread anger and revulsion from a people who still remember their actual, natural rights and who reject the arbitrary, fraudulent rights dreamed up by progressives.