I'm one of those people, you see, who thinks all ethics, or at least all ethical judgements are situational and that what we like to call fundamentals is an abstract construct, a bit like Euclidean geometry, which is immune from other, perhaps decisive factors. Parallel lines do indeed intersect in a universe with curvature and morally clear decisions become less clear when they have to cope with the purpose of morality and ethics.
Speaking to Chris Matthews last week, Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) declared that he would not have voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- not because he's a racist, and to be sure he says he would have desegregated government institutions like schools, but because the rights of property owners are fundamental to our basic freedoms; freedoms that our constitution implies, are rights inherently and independently fundamental as they stand. Is he insisting that those with no property have fewer or no rights? That's up to him to clarify and I expect he would like the oportunity.
“I believe that property rights should be protected,”says the man from Texas. Who would disagree when presented in the abstract. But life isn't an abstract thing and may I defend building a nuclear waste dump next to Manhattan because of that declared axiom? Are property rights part of a constellation of rights all designed by humans to make human life free of certain abuses? Are rights, like Newton's laws, fundamental or descriptive? If they are things invented by the people and for the people, to what purpose were they invented; to protect the one against the many or the many against the one or both? Do they apply equally at all points on the long curve or are only around the middle where we experience things?
I'm sure Paul would have to admit with liberals, that there are limits to "fundamental" rights, but just what those are and for what reason those limits are put there needs to be dragged out of the cave and into the light. Do rights exist for the benefit of people and if so does the right of one man always trump the right of every man? Are we here for the law or is the law here for us? Do the rights of all really flow from the rights of an individual or are individual rights sometimes an impediment? If there is an impediment to that road to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, must 300 million of us endure it so that the abstract right of one may be protected? Yes, that's extreme, but as with Newton's laws, it's the extremes that absolutes are shown not to be so. In short, can Libertarian theory produce a country that any of us will want to live in - in whole or in part?
(Of course if I were to debate him, I would, in my quasi-deconstructionist way ask him what he means by property and whether that question isn't more fundamental because without asking that, defending property rights can defend slavery or rape and some slightly worse things.)
We need to talk about it. We've been stuck at this point for too long. These concerns aren't new and they aren't going away and we all need to rethink our opinions at a fundamental level as a regular practice. I think Paul and Obama are both well qualified to do it and will do it -- and if we have to endure another hysterical fugue about flag pins and death panels and birth certificates and Communism aimed at the stupidest elements of the population; lies and slander and tactical statements of opinion that a moment may reverse - - well let's just say that the civil war doesn't need to be fought this way again.