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This is an outstanding essay on what constitutes a “right.” There seems to be much confusion about the definition. Liberals have largely succeeded in muddying the waters on the issue by claiming many things to be rights which in fact are not. Why? To get elected and maintain power, of course.



By Carl Reed

There has always been a tendency of those on the left to expand the scope of what should be considered legitimate rights.  This was really made clear during the health care debate, but it goes beyond health care.  Leftists want to expand the scope of rights to include such things as food, clothing, shelter, healthcare and education as well.

For the elites on the left the motivation is obviously to obtain or retain power.  Promises of  universal health care, affordable housing, etc are made as a means of attracting  votes.

However, the vast majority who accept the expansion of rights arguments do so out of a fundamental misunderstanding of just what constitutes a right.  Rights aren’t just these nebulous things that hang out there open to arbitrary interpretation.  Legitimate rights have certain characteristics.  Those declared rights which don’t conform to those characteristics cannot be said to be legitimate.

The Declaration of Independence says “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  These three do not exhaust our rights as our Constitution recognizes.  The ninth amendment, inserted at the behest of James Madison, states, “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”  So, to those three, I would add a fourth, labor, for as Frederic Bastiat said, “Man can only derive life and enjoyment from a perpetual search and appropriation; that is, from a perpetual application of his faculties to objects, or from labor. This is the origin of property.”  These four will serve as a basis from which to formulate a set of corollaries to which all legitimate rights must conform.  Rights that violate any of these corollaries are not legitimate rights.

There are five corollaries to which all rights must conform in order to be considered legitimate:

  • Universality – all rights must apply to all citizens;
  • Responsibility – in order for a free society to remain well ordered, each individual is responsibility for maintaining and maximizing their rights;
  • Compensation – all rights are available without having to compensate anyone;
  • Limitation – all rights are limited to the extent to which they encroach on the rights of others;
  • Restriction – rights may be reasonably restricted.

Universality – In a free and well ordered society, all rights must be universal, i.e. they must apply to every person in that society.  In order for a free society to function, there has to be an expectation on the part of each individual that others within the society will recognize their rights.  It is then incumbent on each individual to recognize the rights of all others within the society as well.  The moment one or more individuals fails to recognize the rights of others, those others need not recognize their rights either.  Without such universal recognition, chaos and anarchy would ensue.

In order for a free society to remain well ordered all rights must be accompanied by responsibility.  We are all individually responsible for maximizing our life, our liberty, and the benefits of our labor.  The moment we abrogate that responsibility, we become subservient to those others, and therefore, less free.

All rights are obtained without compensation.  Once compensation is required, the right becomes a privilege because the party to be compensated must agree to the level of compensation.

The only limitation on our individual rights are the equal rights of others.  Encroaching on the rights of others implies a lack of recognition of those others individual rights and, as stated earlier, releases the others from the responsibility recognizing the rights of those who would encroach on their rights, again, ultimately resulting in chaos and anarchy.

In order that the first four corollaries are maintained, in certain instances, individual rights may be restricted.  However, in order for an individual’s rights to be restricted, he or she must engage in acts so egregious as to threaten the freedom or well ordered function of the society.  Were society to begin restricting individual rights lightly, rebellion would be the probable result.

In a free and well ordered society, the right to life is universal.  It is our responsibility to make the most of our lives.  It is available without compensation.  My right to life can’t encroach on the rights of other members of the society.  If I commit an act so egregious that it threatens the freedom or well ordered function of society, my life can be forfeit.  This holds equally for liberty as well.

Our right to our own labor also conforms to the aforementioned corollaries.  However, there is an added dimension to our right to labor in that we can exchange our labor for other, more tangible property.  That property then becomes representative of our labor and thus acquires the status of a right.  If I approach a man in need of assistance in plowing his field, I can freely exchange my labor for money or something else of value as long as we both agree to the exchange.  That money becomes representative of my labor and thus I have the right to spend it as I see fit.  If I use the money to buy a piece of land, that land becomes representative of my labor and thus I should have the right to do with it as I see fit.  In fact, our founding fathers recognized that the ownership of property is the most important distinction between freedom and tyranny. This idea is so important that John Adams, second president of the United States wrote: “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the law of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.”

If we declare health care to be a right, does it conform to the aforementioned corollaries?  A person who smokes or eats junk food and becomes obese, has violated the responsibility corollary.  If the government has to step in and tell you that you can’t smoke or tells you what you can and cannot eat, you have abrogated your responsibility to the government and therefore are less free.  There are also costs involved with health care and someone has to pay those costs.  If not the patient, then the cost has to be borne by the taxpayer, thus encroaching on the property rights of other members of the society.

Dr. Kevin Pezzi provides an excellent real world illustration on how health care taken as a right encroaches on the Doctors labor rights:

“As an ER doctor, the federal government obligates you to see every patient who walks through the door, whether or not they can pay for their care, even if what they have is clearly not an emergency (for example, in True Emergency Room Stories I presented a case in which a woman came to the ER via ambulance after calling 911 because she wanted me to check her vagina to see if it was ‘tight enough.’)

I would not object to this if the government fairly compensated me for that care, but they don’t.  In fact, I could be fined $50,000 per occurrence by refusing to see a patient.  There is a name for forcing people to work without compensation:  it’s called slavery.

Essentially, the government created an unfunded mandate, and put the burden of funding that mandate on the backs of ER doctors.  My income as an ER doctor was cut in half because so much of the work I did was without compensation.  Not only did I treat thousands of patients for free, but I actually lost money from them because I still had to pay for malpractice insurance and other expenses.”

How about food; only that which you grow or kill yourself can conform to all five corollaries.  Therefore establishing food as a right allows those who make such a demand to abrogate their responsibility for obtaining their own food, and therefore enslaving themselves to the authority or whim of the provider of the food, in most cases the government.  If, because of increased demand, the price of food rises and government, in an effort to hold down costs, fails to properly compensate the farmer or rancher, the farmer or rancher has also become enslaved to the government.

The same goes for clothing, shelter and education.  They all violate the aforementioned corollaries for the same reasons and therefore cannot be considered legitimate rights.

The true danger in the expansion of rights is that it invites increased government intrusion in our lives.  Whenever you put government, or anyone else in a position of providing for your care, they control you.  In the case of government control, you are heading down the road to tyranny.


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