Rights and Non-Rights: A Simple Way to Distinguish the Two

As a score of politicians prepare to announce their 2020 campaigns for President of the United States, we can expect “rights” to be in the news every day, as they are promised to us one after another. “You have a right” to this or that and “If elected, I’ll make sure you get it” will soon be monotonous refrains.

America is a nation founded on the notion of rights. Our independence was declared in 1776 on a foundation of “unalienable” rights granted to us, not by mortal authorities, but by the Creator himself. Our ancestors rebelled against the British because they believed that such rights as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were being thwarted by oppressors in London. Our founding documents were put forth specifically for the purposes of securing and protecting rights.

Battles, both intellectual and physical, were fought in the ensuing decades to ensure that rights remained a priority of government or were extended to people not originally included.

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So this business of rights is indistinguishable from the American experience; indeed, it is at the very core of that experience. Remove rights from the equation, and America is just one of countless countries—past and present—in which individuals possess nothing more than what those in power decide to give them or allow them to have.

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Despite the centrality of rights in American history, it’s readily apparent today that Americans are of widely different views on what a right is, how many we have, where rights come from, or why we have any in the first place.

Is a right the same thing as a wish? Why or why not? Or if you need something, does that mean you have a right to it? If I require a kidney, do I have a right to one of yours?

Is a right something that can, or should, be granted or denied by majority vote? Does a document such as the Constitution or an executive order or a law of Congress create rights? Or do such paper instruments simply acknowledge rights (by either defending or eroding them) that people inherently possess?

If you walked down Main Street America in 2019 and asked random citizens these very questions, I’ll bet you’d hear a plethora of different and conflicting answers. Read over those questions again and think about how you would respond.

I’ve given this subject some thought over the years and feel confident in providing the reader with a couple of lists to consider. The first one itemizes what I personally think you have a right to; the second is a partial roster of things I personally think you don’t have a right to (and I readily grant that you have every right to disagree with me).

  1. Your life (unless compromised by taking or attempting to take that of another person without a self-defense justification);
  2. Your thoughts;
  3. Your speech (which is really a verbal or written expression of #2) so long as you don’t steal it from another without permission or credit;
  4. Material property you were freely given, that you created yourself, or that you freely traded for;
  5. Raise and educate your children as you see fit (while abuse and neglect are not defensible);
  6. Live in peace and freedom so long as you do not threaten the peace and freedom of others.
  1. High-speed broadband Internet access;
  2. Cheeseburgers, cheap wine (or even expensive wine, for that matter), or an iPhone;
  3. Somebody else’s house, car, boat, income, business, or bank account;
  4. The labor of another person you’ve not freely contracted with (you can’t enslave somebody, in other words);
  5. Medical care from a witch doctor or a skilled surgeon or anybody in between;
  6. Taxpayer-funded (i.e., coercively-appropriated) child daycare, college education, contraceptives, colonoscopies, or sports stadiums;
  7. Anything that’s not yours, even though you really want it and think you’re entitled to it;
  8. Conscript other people’s children into schools you think they should attend;
  9. Free stuff in general, unless the rightful owner chooses to offer it
  10. Anything a politician flattered you with by claiming you have a right to it.

Now, look at those two lists again, carefully. How does the nature of the first list contrast with the nature of the second?

Answer: In the case of the first list, nothing is required of other people except that they leave you alone. For you to have a right to something in the second list, however, requires that other people be compelled to provide that something to you. That’s a monumental difference!

So while I believe neither you nor I have a right to any of those disparate things in the second list, I hasten to add that we certainly have the right to seek them, to create them, to receive them as gifts from willing benefactors, or to trade for them. We just don’t have a right to compel anyone to give them to us or pay for them.

If any of us did, then why wouldn’t another individual have a similar right to take them from us?

Lawrence W. Reed is an author and president of the Foundation for Economic Education. Published with permission. Read full article at fee.org.

The Language of Liberty series is an outreach project of the Center for Self Governance, a non-profit, non-partisan educational organization, dedicated to training citizens in principles of liberty. The views expressed by the authors are their own and may not reflect the views of CSG. CenterForSelfGovernance.com

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