Friday, January 23, 2015

Different Kinds of Rights

Today we hear a lot of talk about rights, but rights usually imply duties for others.  If someone has a right to something, the rest have a duty not to deprive him of it.  When you think about it carefully, there seem to be two different kinds of rights that have developed in modern society, those guaranteeing non-interference and those that require an investment by others.

The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, establishes certain specific rights for the citizens.  They have the right to free speech, religion and assembly.  They have a right to bear arms.  They have a right not to be forced to house soldiers or to self-incriminate.  They have a right not to be subject to unreasonable searches.

These rights are to be enforced by the government and respected by fellow citizens.  These are the first kinds of rights.  For someone to have free speech, it only requires that the government not pass laws to deprive anyone of that right.  Citizens respect that right by letting a person have his say, not necessarily agreeing, but also not coercing or physically preventing him from making his point.  The other rights are similar.  The government leaves people alone, and the people leave each other alone to exercise their rights.

Now we get to the other kind of rights.  "In a country as rich as the United States everyone should have a right to [fill in the blank]."  It is not uncommon to hear rights expressed in these terms.  Using this logic, many have argued for the right to healthcare, housing, food security, retirement, and other things.  Like any rights, these rights come with a duty for the government and fellow citizens not to deprive people of them.  Unlike those in the first example, though, they do not require a leaving alone, but a commitment of resources.  If everyone has a right to housing, and can’t afford to pay for it, someone has to provide the labor and materials to build the house.  If someone who lived paycheck to paycheck for his entire life has a right to a comfortable retirement, someone else has to provide the funds, usually through government taxation.  (My Social Security checks are funded by everyone who is still working today.)  These are not the kind of rights that we merely allow others to exercise; they are rights for others to confiscate, by means of government intervention, part of our production.  That is a big difference.

It is true that in a country as rich as the US, citizens should feel safe and secure, but the US did not become a rich country by encouraging free riders by granting rights to everyone that become the duty of someone else to provide for.  We must have compassion for our fellow citizens that are less fortunate.  But it is a short step from compassion to enabling, and the distinction between less fortunate and less motivated is often overlooked.

This is why the dimension of responsibility is so important.  Clearly, talents are not equally distributed, but if effort is not equally applied, our instinct to be compassionate, when we should be instead setting expectations will lead to degeneration of the culture and bankruptcy of the government.

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