Paul Ryan Has It Wrong on Where Our Rights Come From
A lot of commentators are focusing, understandably, on the exaggerations and distortions in Paul Ryan’s speech.
But I’d like to focus on something more philosophical.
In his speech, Paul Ryan repeated a line he delivered on the morning Mitt Romney selected him.
Here’s the line: “Our rights come from nature and God, not from government.”
Let me try to unpack that one, bit by bit.
I’m an atheist, so the idea that our rights come from God is a nonstarter for me.
But do they come from nature?
Now I believe in universal human rights, but some mythical Mother Nature didn’t bestow these rights upon us, either.
No, these human rights--and the ideas and the ideals that conceived them—came from the minds of men and women who wrestled with the big questions: What is fair and what is just? Over time, a commonly held sense of right and wrong developed, which was then enacted into law by—yes—government.
Laws, if they are just, enable us to exercise our rights—to freedom of speech and assembly and religion and privacy, for instance.
And to suffrage and our freedom to participate equally in our governance.
And to the freedom to clean air, and clean water, and safe workplaces.
And government also defends our freedom from discrimination, robbery, assault, murder, and invasion, for that matter.
For all of these protections, some form of popular government is needed, or the most brutish person or gang may rule and then trample on our rights.
So, in actuality God and nature didn’t create our rights, and they sure don’t preserve our rights.
We did that, and we do that, by ourselves, and through our instrument, government, if it is truly democratic and respectful of our finest principles.
But Ryan, by positing that our rights come from God and nature, can foist his anti-abortion beliefs or his anti-regulation beliefs upon us under the cloak of the phantom God or nature’s way, neither of which is subject to rational refutation or any truly democratic debate. They are just trump cards. And he plays them cleverly.
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story “Don’t Expect Much from Obama’s Second Term."
Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter
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