Have you ever heard someone say that you need God in government to maintain your rights? They will typically say something like, “Rights are granted by God and can only be revoked by God. That’s the only way we can keep the State from unjustly harming us.” Rights in this context generally refers to only the most fundamental rights, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (Lockeans would include property). Well, if that view is your basis for rights, then you run into some interesting problems. I made this point on Facebook a while ago, but after watching a few Republican Presidential debates, I wanted to expand on the idea and relate it directly to stances taken by Republican candidates.
My argument is quite simple – I would formulate it as follows, taking the above position to its logical conclusion:
1. God is the divine author of rights.
2. Only the divine author of rights can justly revoke those rights.
3. Therefore, the State cannot justly revoke our fundamental rights.
Now, so far, religious people probably think this all sounds pretty good. “Yes,” they say, “the government has no right to interfere with my God-given liberties! The government should just be in place to protect them.” But let’s keep following the argument and see where it will run into some problems.
4. These fundamental rights include a right to life.
5. Therefore, the State has no right to revoke my life and has an obligation to protect my life.
6. Therefore, the State has no right to kill me (Capital Punishment) or to let me die through conscious inaction.
Rick Perry proudly boasted about his record as Governor (Head Executioner) of Texas. The crowd at the debate apparently liked it too because it drew some of the loudest cheers of the evening when he defended the murders. We can see by the above argument, however, that the position that the government can justly kill someone is not consistent with the idea that God grants our fundamental rights, a position I’m certain Perry holds.
Similarly, you cannot justly let someone die through conscious inaction. The purpose of government, according to the God-gives-rights crowd, is simply to protect these rights so that others cannot tread on you. Well, if you have a right to life, and you have a government with a duty to protect that right, then what should the government do in situations where someone is dying a preventable death and the government can help? The government should do nothing to help if they don’t have insurance, according to Ron Paul. Again we have cheers from the crowd, and again we have an inconsistent position.
The situation may be less clear in the Paul example due to heavy privatization, but we can clearly see the problem if we take it out of the context of health insurance. Imagine you are a police officer and you walk by a situation where a robber is going to shoot a man. You happen to know this man is jobless and does not pay any taxes. Since your position as a police officer is funded by taxes, this man has not paid for your help. Now, should you, as the officer, step in and stop the robber from killing the man? Of course! I can’t imagine anyone saying otherwise. So, even though the State (everyone else) is footing the bill for the officer’s time, it would be unjust to let the man die when you have the ability to prevent it. A doctor is in a similar position. They can help in a way that others cannot, and if the government needs to foot the bill sometimes to prevent an unnecessary death, so be it. We would do it in any other area that wasn’t warped by the commercial mindset of health insurance companies and others like them.
So, positions that were espoused by two of the top four presidential candidates (and subsequently cheered by the crowd) are clearly inconsistent with their position that God grants our fundamental rights. To avoid the inconsistency, they will have to either give up their conclusions (the most sensible solution) or deny one of the premises in my argument. Don’t hold your breath for either to actually happen.