Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) equated government programs that prevent people from dying of starvation with slavery in a new profile of his medical practice published today, revealing himself to hold a view of the role of government so limited as to nearly define the state out of existence.
Paul’s philosophical excursus is buried in the midst of the too-friendly-for-parody article (it ends with a patient waxing poetic about how Paul “loves people“), but the words are unmistakably Randian. “As humans, yeah, we do have an obligation to give people water, to give people food, to give people health care,” Paul allowed, “but it’s not a right because once you conscript people and say, ‘Oh, it’s a right,’ then really you’re in charge, it’s servitude, you’re in charge of me and I’m supposed to do whatever you tell me to do.”
The comments are an echo of his 2011 claim that accepting a human right to health care “means you believe in slavery,” but the Senator’s new variation on the theme is notable because it puts the reasoning behind the crazy in stark relief. Particularly, this line: “You don’t have a right to anyone else’s labor. Food’s pretty important, do you have a right to the labor of the farmer?”
The basic idea is that if slavery means forcing people to do things, and saying people have a right to food means the government should require farmers to provide it to them, then a right to food means the enslavement of farmers. A moderately bright high school student could spot the leap of logic here: no one’s forcing anyone to farm against their will. In a democratic-capitalist economy, people have a right to choose their career and, as it turns out, enough people end up being farmers that there’s generally enough food to go around. A socially-accepted “right to food” merely means the government should pay for the provision of food to those who can’t afford it. No stealing, and definitely no slavery.
But skip over the logic for a second and think through what Paul’s saying here. Because a farmer produced the food, no one but that farmer can have a right to it (“you don’t have a right to anyone else’s labor”). Presumably, because Paul believes in a market economy, whatever money the farmer makes from selling the fruits of his labor is also his and only his. Taxation in this worldview isn’t just theft; it’s slavery. Because what is the government taking money you’ve earned if not the Leviathan forcing you to work part-time for its profit?
The really bizarre part of Paul’s formulation of this principle is his use of food (and medical care) as an example. The thing about starvation and illness is that they make it impossible for you to participate either in the market economy or in democratic governance; generally, people with distended bellies and 103 degree fevers aren’t in good shape to contribute to civil society or the economy. Don’t take my word for it; economist and libertarian icon Friederich Hayek believed in a basic guaranteed income and a social safety net (including health care) to ensure a fair democratic society. Here’s the key passage from The Road to Serfdom:
There can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody. … Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individual in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision.
He made the same point in a less popularly known work, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, where he writes that “a sort of floor below which nobody need fall even when he is unable to provide for himself, appears not only to be wholly legitimate protection against a risk common to all, but a necessary part of the Great Society in which the individual no longer has specific claims on the members of the particular small group into which he was born.” In a modern society, Hayek’s saying, we’re obligated to collectively take care of the people who aren’t being provided for by the people immediately around them.
Paul has somehow ended up to the right of a guy who believed that the government’s monopoly on currency production was destroying democracy. Taken seriously, the implications of Paul’s “food rights are slavery” view are that there’s no public good, no matter how basic it is to the functioning of a democratic society, that people have a right to demand from the government. It’s even hard to make the traditional hard-libertarian exception for the justice system and military stick in Paul’s schema; how can you justify “enslaving” a pacifist to pay for an army whose very existence they reject?
I’m not just picking on a few stray sentences here. The backlash against Paul’s 2011 comments in this line (including from more tempered libertarians) was immense. If he was going to bow to political pressures on the “rights are slavery” argument, he would have already done so. Indeed, Paul openly acknowledges in the article appearing today that this debate “often gets me in trouble:” he’s used to getting heat on this one and just doesn’t care. It’s what he believes.
So an influential Senator, a much-ballyhooed candidate for his party’s nomination for the presidency, has been consistently espousing a worldview, reflected in his budget, that logically implies virtually all major government programs are slavery. And we live in times where that’s acceptable enough that it’s buried in the middle of a piece about volunteer ophthalmology.