I notice on social media that various conservatives are becoming increasingly irate at being reminded of the fact that things like roads, police, fire protection, are essentially socialist programs which they are not only happy to use without thought, but view as their well-deserved entitlements. Jim Wright, over at Stonekettle Station, set off something of a firestorm on Twitter for pointing out that, “Calling universal healthcare and public education free stuff is the same as calling a Navy aircraft carrier a free ship.” The conservative outrage, apparently, stems from the “fact” that things like roads, police, and fire departments, are the sorts of things that government is “supposed” to provide. What the self-righteous conservative objects to is all of that other stuff, like public education and healthcare, that socialists propose to just “give away.”
It is very hard to give a measured response to such immeasurable ignorance and hypocrisy. It really is not all that long ago that fire, police, and roads were the sorts of things that governments did NOT bother to provide. Part of the devastation of the Great Fire of London in 1666 was that there was no uniform, government provided and enforced system of fire protection and suppression. The introduction of the “King’s Highway” (“high,” because the road was built up above the surrounding ground, so that when it rained the road would not turn into an impassable quagmire) was something of a revolutionary approach to transportation. The idea of an actual police force didn’t really come into being in the European world until the 19th Century. In earlier times such tasks were handled by local thugs and warlords whose only claim to “law” was that there was no one around who might challenge their arbitrary decisions and actions. So why are these things suddenly just and only the sorts of things that government is supposed to provide? Specifically, if fire and police protection, roads, water and sewage, are the sort of things government is supposed to provide, then why are things like healthcare, education, minimal standards of living, access to basic resources such as information and community, examples of things that those nasty-evil socialists want to just “give away”?
Let us dispose of one piece of idiocy that is frequently floated in any such discussion, the claim that (for example) “there is no right to health care.” The supposed basis for this indefensible nonsense is that there is no explicit mention of such a right anywhere in the Constitution. It would be ironic, were it not so pathetic, that the people who make such noisy appeals to what the Constitution says have taken so little trouble to actually read the document. Anyone who has made such a minimal effort in this direction will not be able to miss the 9th Amendment which states:
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Now, as anyone whose reading comprehension exceeds that of a remedial 3rd grader will immediately recognize, this Amendment explicitly sets aside any suggestion that a right must be eplicitly enumerated in order to exist. It does not tell us anything about how to determine when and whether a right does exist, only that it is not the responsibility of the Constitution to list them all. So how, exactly, is one supposed to determine when a right is real?
Well, this last question is posed precisely so that we might see how painfully foolish it is. Why would we ever be so willfully delusional as to suppose that there is a single, “exact” way of making such a determination? For one thing, why should we suppose that all Rights are fixed in advance, like some metaphysically primordial first principles, untouchable by changes in the world? Should we suppose that, say, health care was a “right” in an era when doctors thought that being required to wash their hands was an affront to the dignity of their profession? Perhaps in that world the real right was to be preserved from the dubious offices of butchers with no concept of disease or infection. But that world is not ours. We may not know everything there is to know about health and disease, but we know enough now that with relatively straight-forward and easily accessible interventions, we can help people to become vastly healthier than they would be should such access be denied to them. So there is certainly as much of a “right” to health care as there is to police and fire departments, neither of which are explicitly mentioned in the Constitution either. Yet health is an essential component for the very possibility of a “pursuit of happiness” (the Declaration, of course), which latter really is supposed to be an inalienable right.
Rights are not “free stuff.” They are, in point of fact, no kind of “stuff” whatsoever, since they are an expression of one’s basic standing as a moral/rational agent. (This latter phrase is both broader and narrower than “human.” It is broader in that it can encompass non-human agents, and narrower in that it does not grant agency to something simply on account of its containing human DNA.) A right is not something you “have,” it is a fundamental avenue for manifesting what you are. And how is a person to manifest that being in the absence of education? And as for a minimal standard of living, even Aristotle (not someone who ever expressed any fondness for democracy) clearly understood some 2300+ years ago, that a free person living in penury could not possibly live a properly human life, much less the life of a rational being and citizen. So by what reasoned standard are we supposed to believe that roads, etc. (which weren’t always provided by government) are the only appropriate places of government provision, but these other areas – fundamental to the possibility of basic life and citizenship – are not?
A move that is typically made is to say that roads and aircraft carriers are “public goods,” because they serve everyone’s interests, whereas education and healthcare only serve those who receive them. This ignorant claim serves to prove the fact that education is indeed a public good, because only someone who is ineducably obtuse would spout something so idiotic. Education IS a public good, and it does serve everyone’s interests, because living in a society populated by extremely stupid people leaves us with Donald Trump as the Republican presidential front runner. Uneducated people also frequently fail to understand that the lack of universal healthcare costs our economy staggering sums of money every year due to lost productivity, and lost income that could have been spent in economically growth enhancing ways had it not been diverted to unconscionably high medical bills. An uneducated populace – ignorant of science, of history, lacking facility in literary and critical thinking skills – is a threat to the very possibility of a democratic society, far more so than terrorists in the Middle East. Such uneducated people are the sorts who will eagerly and credulously permit themselves to be gulled into allowing that aircraft carrier to used in meaningless wars that only manufacture more terrorists, making us all less safe. Insofar, education is a much more important, and much more a genuinely public good, than that aircraft carrier, which is at least as facile in the service of vicious and stupid ends as it is in maintaining a democratic society.
Moreover, at the point that we start understanding these things as rights, then they cannot ever be “given away;” they can, however, be denied. Thus, for example, justice is never a gift when it occurs, but that occurrence can, and all too frequently is, obstructed. And denying education and healthcare to people is itself a denial of justice, since absent the first two it is not possible (as already noted) to fully participate as a citizen in this society. So the issue that so many conservatives refuse to acknowledge is not that liberals and socialists are trying to give things away; rather, they are trying to stop those things from being taken away.