Glenn Beck is a conservative, formerly Republican commentator who has a website called “The Blaze” and a radio show. He also at one time had a show on Fox News. This year, he gave the closing address at the Conservative Political Action Conference. One of my conservative friends referred the speech to me as a good explanation of conservative values.
To be fair, I listened to about half the speech, but then I downloaded the transcript and read it. It was easier for me to make notes that way, and faster, too.
Beck had a reputation for getting excited, ebullient, and sometimes erratic when he speaks. (I watched bits of his show a few times; the reputation is earned.) For this speech, though, he was forceful, but measured. There was none of the wildness he had shown on his program in the past.
The parts of his speech that explain conservative principles is that we are all individuals who have free agency and inalienable rights. No man or woman has power over any other. Rights are ours individually, and so no individual’s rights can trump anyone else’s rights.
Beck made his case passionately. And I disagree with nearly everything he said.
To start, there is an overall tone to his speech that immediately undercuts his argument. For all his talk about individuality, Beck is very quick to lump progressives, liberals, socialists, and the like into one bucket with one common goal. If everyone is an individual, certainly we have individual viewpoints that do not follow one set of beliefs assigned to us by people who disagree with us.
Since we live in close proximity to other humans, an individual’s rights are bound to bump up against another’s rights. Beck completely ignores this possibility, other than to say the rights of five can never outweigh the rights of one. But there are many cases where one person’s rights can interfere with another person’s rights. For example, if a person makes a statement, he is exercising his First Amendment right of free speech. If the statement is a libel against another person, explaining falsely that he committed a crime, he is denying that person due process, another Constitutional right.
No rights are absolute – even the right of free speech (the “shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater” situation). More generally, nearly every civil court case occurs because each party feels his rights have been violated.
Conflicting rights need to be resolved. In Beck’s world, each individual would claim his rights, and there would be a standoff, which could possibly end in chaos. I don’t think this is what the Founding Fathers envisioned.
In Beck’s talk, there is the statement that advances in technology were stagnant, then came at an incredible rate after the American Revolution, strongly suggesting that the American ideal of individuality led to the advances. Let’s forget for a moment about the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution in Britain. The simple truth is everyone’s success is built on the work and successes of people before him.
Unless a multimillionaire dug gold out of the ground with his bare hands, all of his successes came from the hard work of others. I’m not suggesting that he didn’t do hard work himself – just that he could do what he did only because of those who came before him.
In fact, man has only survived through joint effort. I made a comment to this effect in a Toastmasters speech I gave. The reason there are only 20% true introverts is that introversion is not conducive to survival. Introverts are most at ease when they are alone. Do you know what else likes it when introverts are alone? Mountain lions.
There is much more to society than saying “I am an individual, and I have rights.”
I consider myself liberal, and I too believe everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as presented in the US Constitution. I also believe that those rights are meaningless if people do not have the ability to exercise those rights because of their current situation. That is where others step in to help. Individuals, and even small private groups, can offer some help, but the government is in a unique position to provide help on a national scale, through the powers and duties of imposing taxes and organizing aid (such as Medicare and Social Security).
There is also a principle called the social contract. Society agrees to give up some individual rights to the whole in exchange for the whole providing services. For all their talk, conservatives never mention the social contract. Is it possible they don’t accept it or have reimagined it to fit in with their agenda?
Conservatives believe in the power of the individual. Liberals also believe in the power of the individual, but we also believe that individual power can be even better expressed through the help of the whole of society. That requires more work to find the balance between individual rights and what is best for society, but just having that discussion helps everyone understand his place in society and his responsibilities.
How can anyone seriously talk about individual rights as the be all and end all without realizing that we give up our individual rights regularly in order to live and work in society? I for one don’t want to live in my own fiefdom. I am delighted that I can forego some rights so that others can exercise their rights in the same way. Then we can work together and truly improve society for all individuals.