RNC 2012: Paul Ryan lays out a conservative vision of rights

Ryan's speech to the RNC wasn't just an attack on Obama; he laid out in clear terms the candidates' competing views of rights and liberty. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, D.C., August 29, 2012 — Near the end of his speech tonight at the Republican Convention, vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan declared:

“Each of these great moral ideas is essential to democratic government – to the rule of law, to life in a humane and decent society. They are the moral creed of our country, as powerful in our time, as on the day of America’s founding. They are self-evident and unchanging, and sometimes, even presidents need reminding, that our rights come from nature and God, not from government.”

This principle is fundamental to the American system of government: The Constitution of the United States does not grant us rights; it charges government with the responsibility to protect them.

This concept of rights is fundamental to conservative thought. If we believe that rights precede government, we must accept the default position that rights always exist unless we have explicitly restricted them. If we believe instead that rights are extended by government, then we reduce them to privileges that can legitimately be rescinded at any time, for any reason.

Liberty in a free society is necessarily restricted. When you marry, you relinquish the freedom to live your life the way you want, to come and go as you please, to associate with whomever you want whenever you want on any terms that please you. If you don’t relinquish those freedoms, you’ll have no marriage. If we want to live with unlimited liberty, we must live alone, outside of society.

If a free society restricts liberty, it does it in the most carefully limited way possible. To go beyond that, to restrict liberty beyond the bare minimum required for by the rule of law, is tyranny.

That message has been the constant drumbeat of Ron Paul and the Liberty Movement. It has been a constant theme in some parts of the GOP. It has been lost in other parts of the GOP, and generally within the Democratic Party. 

Ryan’s speech was a steel fist wrapped in a velvet glove. He criticized the Obama Administration explicitly and harshly, but also with a sense of regret. He didn’t assume that Obama is evil, but only that he hasn’t lead, that he doesn’t know how to lead, and that he doesn’t know where to lead us. He’s “a ship trying to sail on yesterday’s wind.” 

Where more and more Republicans part company with Obama is over the idea he so eloquently expressed when he said, “You didn’t build that.” It wasn’t just the obviously true observation that we live in a society and depend on other people, but an assertion about the role of government in our life. It reflected Obama’s sincere belief that the greatness of a people and the security of their liberty are ultimately due to the greatness of their government and its ability to provide for them. 

It’s true that no business operates in a vacuum. The businessman didn’t build the roads, he doesn’t provide the courts that ensure his contracts are enforced, he doesn’t defend the shipping lanes that transport raw materials and his products. 

And yet, he does.

The roads were built with taxes that private individuals paid. The government didn’t build them, we the people did. The fledgling business owner puts in the hours, opens the doors, prepares the books, and accepts the risks of failure. And if the business succeeds, it pays the taxes that build new roads and educate new workers, then pays employees who also pay those taxes. 

Ultimately, business owners did build that, no matter which “that” Obama was talking about. 

Men like President Obama see liberty in a very different way than men like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan do. Obama sees freedom as freedom from want and freedom from risk. It’s the freedom to live life just like everyone else lives it. He thus sees liberty and rights as a gift of government. Government is both granter and guarantor. We are great because our government is great.

We aren’t islands of perfect liberty. As Ryan said, “We have responsibilities, one to another – we do not each face the world alone.” The Preamble to the Constitution is a statement of mutual responsibility, almost a national insurance policy: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

But at the same time Romney and Ryan have a view of liberty that includes freedom to choose and take on the consequences, for good or ill. Government is there to guarantee opportunities for all, to ensure a minimal standard of existence for all those in the society, but that minimum is a long way from the greatness possible to us if we’re free. 

Freedom as Obama sees it restricts our choices to make life more stable and secure. Freedom as Romney and Ryan sees it expands our choices, increasing the risks of life, but also the rewards.

Rep. Ryan stressed those points, and bound them together with the fundamental premise: Rights are not extended to us by government, success is not a gift of government, liberty must be defended by the people in their role as government, and legitimate government exists only as an extension of the will of the people. 

It isn’t the role of government to grant us permissions and privileges, to make our lives comfortable, to lift from us the burden of the consequences of our own choices, and to make us dependent. Its role is to protect our rights, rights that the government didn’t give us and that it has no right to take. 

“None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers – a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.”

The philosophical choice in this election is stark. The election will be about competing policies, but it’s really about a conflict of visions. The results will say much about how we Americans see ourselves and our future.


James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He’s a big fan of Isaiah Berlin. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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