Getting Back to Fundamentals: To Understand Rights is to Understand the Morality of Capitalism

Aside from the massive Democrat majorities in Congress and their ill-conceived bills (passed and yet to come), one particularly troubling aspect of Barack Obama’s election was the revelation of an apparent demand for redistribution.  Certainly there are those who want socialism and understand everything that entails.  Call me foolish but I can’t help but think there would be a lot less support for it if more people understood some key principles behind our country. 

 I. Rights

First, there seems to be a shocking lack of understanding on the difference between a republic and a democracy despite the volumes written on the subject if one cares to look.  The recent video of ‘Julio‘ so enthusiastically begging Obama to solve his problems provided a frightening picture of what can happen when people think they can vote for anything and everything they ever wanted in life.  How about if we gave everyone with red hair the death penalty, as long as a majority voted for it?  Never mind that charter the founding fathers created to prevent the ‘tyranny of the majority’. 

Second, and perhaps more complex, is an inappropriate understanding of rights.  For this we can give a big high five to the progressives, going all the way back to likes of Woodrow Wilson and FDR.  Instead of having rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we now have the right to food, shelter, and other necessities of life.  Of course, who wants to see people living in the streets and dying of hunger?  For those who haven’t seriously considered what rights really are, it can be very confusing to understand the difference.  The simplest test to distinguish a real right from a phony one is to ask ‘who has to initiate force to violate the right?  If the person holding the right has to initiate force or have it initiated on his behalf (i.e. taxes) then it is a phony right.  In contrast, the person holding a legitimate right initiates no force in maintaining that right.  The only requirement is for others to refrain from initiating force. 

While Obama is not the first to muddy the philosophical waters over what a right is, he has been exceptional at doing it.  On his own change.gov website, he uses those ubiquitous words, ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, but in a context that literally turns its original meaning on its head.  I noted similar words and phrases (our founding fathers, our forebears, founding documents, their chance to pursue … happiness, etc) in Obama’s inaugural address, but found no words that actually championed individualism or individual rights.   This is not surprising, as he has stated in past interviews how he feels about the constitution’s negative liberties (or protection of individual rights). 

 II – The Moral Argument

Now let’s see how rights – as defined by the founders – apply to the discussions of today.  Welfarism, the idea that everyone has a right to certain necessities of life, is a key component of socialist principles, and is firmly entrenched in our current way of life.  Of course, such a right comes at the expense of those who produce.  Consider the following excerpt from The New Individualist:

Suppose I can produce…and simply choose not to? Suppose I am capable of earning a much larger income than I do, the taxes on which would support a person who will otherwise go hungry.  Am I obliged to work harder, to earn more, for the sake of that person?  I do not know any philosopher of welfare who would say that I am.  The moral claim imposed on me by another person’s need is contingent not only on my ability but also on my willingness to produce. 

            And this tells us something important about the ethical focus of welfarism.  It does not assert an obligation to pursue the satisfaction of human needs, much less the obligation to succeed in doing so.  The obligation, rather, is conditional:  those who do succeed in creating wealth may do so only on condition that others are allowed to share the wealth.  The goal is not so much to benefit the needy as to bind the able.  The implicit assumption is that a person’s ability and initiative are social assets, which may be exercised only on condition that they are aimed at the service of others. 


This passage rigorously demonstrates how welfarism is in direct conflict with the very concept of rights.  How can our constitution really protect rights if a person’s ability may only be exercised as a condition of satisfying someone else’s “rights”?  The same argument can be made when considering egalitarianism (distribution of wealth).

The point here, is that the basic premise of capitalism – exercising self-interest to achieve one’s own independent goals (i.e., pursuit of happiness) via protection of basic rights  – is not an immoral system.  This is how our country’s founders saw rights and it is the system upon which our prosperity and way of life was built. 

The American Revolution truly was one of the most radical movements in known history.  In many ways, however, its principles are even more radical now than when they were conceived.  Those on the left have so persistently and successfully vilified its ideals that those who dare utter concepts like rational self interest or elimination of taxes are immediately cast aside as fringe extremists.  Perhaps a better understanding of these principles will stem the tide of people basing their vote solely on what loot a candidate promises and relying more on principles of independence.