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Distinguishing Freedom and Ability

I have always preferred our classic statements of rights, such as the bill of rights, to such statements as Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms.” What interests me is that while our classic statements of rights indicate things that the government is not permitted to prevent you from doing, the latter two freedoms from Roosevelt’s list, and especially the third, indicate things that you get to have.

The four freedoms Roosevelt mentioned are:

  1. Freedom of speech
  2. Freedom of worship
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

This ambiguity comes up in plenty of discussions of rights. What precisely does “freedom from want’ require, who gets to decide just how much want is permissible, and who gets to decide who has to produce all of that? I, for example, would like a much better computer. It would help me in my creative activities. Perhaps someone should give me one in order to improve my mental health.

Of course I’m not serious about that. Nobody has any duty to give me a computer. I will have to earn the money and buy one. People often assume that we will all have a reasonable definition of “want” in place, but the fact is that we don’t agree on such things.

That, however, is not my main point. I would like to focus on the distinction between these two types of rights. The first, freedom of speech, is provided by the government failing to take certain actions–not suppressing speech. There is, of course, the positive action of maintaining a lawful framework, but that is a requirement for the existence of any right. Freedom from want requires some positive action on someone else’s part, namely to produce the particular goods.

While I believe I have an obligation as a Christian, individually and in community, to care for those who are less advantaged, I have a distinct problem with many of the government programs that do what I believe I must do privately, because they tend to make one person have an inherent, legal right (I think those are oxymoronic, but they are commonly used together) to that which someone else must go out and produce. I advocate certain safety net welfare programs in any case, not as a right of those who receive them, but as part of maintaining a workable society.

But I want to apply this now to speech and to the controversy about intelligent design. There’s a regular chorus going on right now about suppression. I think that chorus is based on a confusion of their rights with someone else’s production.

I have a right to free speech. I do not have a right to any particular medium. If I can find no publisher for my writing, then my writing will not get printed. Since I am a publisher, I have the right to refuse to print someone else’s drivel, or even their masterpiece, and I am not suppressing free speech, even if they find no other way to publish.

Besides forcing someone else to produce what they believe is a right, people who make such claim try to take away the rights of others. Again, illustrating with myself. As a publisher, were I required to print the works of someone even though I chose not to, then my right of free speech is abridged. My right of free speech does not require a carpenter to build a stage, an electrician to wire the sound system, a newspaper to print an ad for my event, nor any person to come an listen to me.

My belief that I have important things to say does not require a college or university to gather students to hear it. There are things that are of value under those circumstances, and other things that are not. If I were the chair of a religion department, for example, I would consider it quite appropriate to refuse a place on the faculty to a KJV-Only advocate, even if he could produce the appropriate accredited degrees.

In High School curricula, we have the need to cover a great deal of material, and some things are in while others are out. We have groups whose job it is to decide which is which. Subject matter needs to meet a threshold of validity and usefulness in order to merit a place in such a curriculum, otherwise you are forcing students to spend time learning that which will not work to their benefit.

Now there is a little glitch in the educational plan. What about state sponsored institutions of higher learning? Shouldn’t they have to provide a platform for anyone in the name of free speech? They are the government, after all. I would say rather than if we allow a government to operate an academic institution, that is precisely what we should expect them to run, and that will mean making choices, discriminating against bad ideas (it isn’t prejudice if you studied it ahead of time!), and allowing some in and not allowing others.

I say to the intelligent design advocates: You don’t have a right to access to scientific journals and faculties. Your presence in such places must be earned. Your ideas should not appear in curricula by right, but rather because they have proven themselves in the appropriate arena.

ID is trying to create a welfare state for ideas. It’s a bad idea economically, and it’s no better of an idea in the realm of ideas.

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