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Patients’ Bill of Rightzzzzzz…Boring
The tyranny of rights talk


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Jonah Goldberg

There was an old Monty Python skit set during World War II in which a young British man writes the world’s funniest joke. It’s so funny that he dies from laughter. His mom goes upstairs and finds her boy dead. She’s crushed, until she reads the joke by mistake. She quickly dies from laughter too. Later a cop finds the joke and he croaks from laughter when he reads it. Eventually, the joke is handed over to British Intelligence. They tear up the piece of paper with the joke on it and using several different translators, rewrite it in German always careful not to read it themselves, lest they die from laughter as well. Later, we see British troops marching through the Black Forest, reading the joke, uncomprehendingly, in German. This causes Wermacht snipers to fall from the trees by the dozen, dead from laughter before they hit the ground.

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I bring this up because a) it’s damn funny. And, b) because I am convinced the CIA could do much the same thing with the patients’ bill of rights. Only, instead of laughter, it would bore people to death. In fact, if we translated the Dingell-Norwood-Ganske-Moe-Larry-Curly Bill into Arabic and had the Voice of America broadcast it into downtown Baghdad we’d be able to finally get rid of Saddam Hussein.

Look, I know the Pundit’s Union (appropriately abbreviated P.U.) says that I am supposed to take all of this Very Serious Legislation championed by Very Serious People on this Very Serious Issue, Very Seriously. But good golly it bores me to tears.

So I am delighted Bush won yesterday, if for no other reason than anything that makes Dick Gephardt blow a gasket on the House floor is worthwhile. “In the name of God…vote against this bill,” he sputtered yesterday as if a no-vote was the only thing that would remove the jagged-toothed fox trap clenched to his Dingell-Norwood.

But I simply cannot get into the details of the legislation. The trial lawyers railed against the Bush-Norwood compromise because it limits lawsuits. Since this is as close to saying the guys with horns and pitchforks were bitterly disappointed as anything I can think of, I’m pleased. And as for the politics, I can’t do better than Paul Gigot this morning.

But there’s still the pressing issue of first principles. And from this perspective any patients’ bill of rights is a failure.

Rhetoric matters. Ideas have consequences. Words have meaning. Short sentences are fun to write. But that’s not important right now.

What is important now and forever is that the government does not grant people rights. A patients’ bill of rights is a travesty against this fundamental truth, at least rhetorically and perhaps substantively. The government has no authority to grant you a right to health care or a right to housing or a right to a nice car or a right to anything else under the sun including the right to speak freely or to own a gun.

The only Bill of Rights which matters is the one in the U.S. Constitution, and if you take the time to read it, you’ll notice that everything is written in the negative. Congress shall make no law abridging X, Y, or even Z is how it goes. The reason for this is simple. Your rights come from God — or if you are the sort who tries God’s patience by not believing in Him — they come from being a human being or a citizen. But they do not come from a bunch of dudes in coffee-stained ties and white short-sleeved shirts in some monstrous bureaucracy somewhere in the bowels of the Justice Department or the Old Executive Office Building. Anything the government can give you it can take away.

For example, Myron Magnet tells a story in The Dream and the Nightmare. The District of Columbia declared that shelter was a “human right” (as opposed to a human need). This right was going to be guaranteed here in the nation’s capital. Great news, answered a lot of people, including a woman in Hong Kong who called the District and asked them to “reserve” her free home right away and she would be over as soon as possible.

Remember, your rights aren’t even “constitutional” like so many Americans think. The Constitution limits what the government can do, it doesn’t create or bestow rights in any way. We could repeal the U.S. Constitution tomorrow and replace it with a copy of Giant-Size X-Men #1 or the script of Return of the Rollerblade 7” and your rights would remain unchanged. The only thing that might change is how much respect the new regime shows toward your rights.

Which is why it’s so dismaying to hear so many journalists and politicians drafting new “bills of rights.”

Chuck Todd, the editor-in-chief, of the Hotline has a great piece on the proliferation of bills of rights. He quotes Trent Lott who observes that the name is so popular that “bill of rights” is becoming shorthand for all sorts of “reforms.” Currently under consideration somewhere in the U.S., according to Todd: a children’s bill of rights; a sports fans’ bill of rights; A hunters’ bill of rights; a shoppers’ bill of rights; a teachers’ bill of rights; students’ religious bill of rights; a parents’ bill of rights; and of course, a voters’ bill of rights.

And, of course, it doesn’t end there. Anyone who’s been in a D.C. cab knows that passengers and drivers have “rights.” I could swear I saw some HBO special about hookers looking for a bill of rights. But I could be wrong as I daydream about such things.

But the fact remains, as a matter of public rhetoric, Americans are increasingly being told that rights refer to things — cars, air conditioning, new magazines at the dentist’s office — they are entitled to rather than things they are born with. Of course, it’s their right to believe this crap, but it ain’t the government’s right to make it true.

In-House News:
First of all, I regret to announce the departure of Webmistress Jessica Kelsey Haggard. She’s decided that having a family, moving to the West Coast, and living the good life is somehow preferable to receiving heaps of unfair abuse from people like me. She will be sorely missed. But the person most sore will be young Aaron Bailey, the web-minion she leaves behind to catch the javelin on a daily basis.

Kathryn Lopez, the plutonium in the reactor core of NRO has been given a title more fitting to her responsibilities. She is now officially “Person Responsible for Keeping Jonah’s Stupidity a Secret.” Oh, wait, that’s still her unofficial title. She has been “promoted,” “rechristened,” whatever you want to call it (though ardent ultramontanist that she is, she’d probably not like “rechristened”) Executive Editor of National Review Online.

Our very own Richard Lowry will be on C-SPAN this Saturday at 8:00 O’clock EST. It will be his speech to the Young America’s Foundation. My own speech to YAF isn’t ready yet. Apparently they broke the “bleep” button while working on it.

Cosmo the Wonder Dog is doing just fine, thanks for all the inquiries. He had another post-surgery x-ray on Wednesday and they say his leg is completely healed, though he does have a bit of arthritis in his right front elbow. But that won’t stop him from heading cross-country with me in search of adventure and beef jerky. Well, ok, jerky first. Adventure a distant second.

Lastly, if you’ve missed the to-and-fro between NRO’s Stanley Kurtz and Jonathan Rauch on gay marriage, you’ve missed one of the best discussions around.



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