Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What is a Right?

Today, we are told we have all kinds of rights. TV commercials tell us we have the right to refinance our mortgages at a lower interest rate. Congresses pass so-called 'bills of rights' for medical patients, airline passengers, and just about every other consumer group. Last year, everybody, including Pope Benedict claimed that healthcare is a right. We are told that we have a “right to an education.” It seems as though there is no end to the rights that will be 'discovered' by our wise and selfless overlords. (OK, the 'wise and selfless' thing was complete sarcasm.) The problem is, politicians, and the citizenry en mase has a fundamental misunderstanding on where rights come from and what they are.

The assumption that a right can be granted by government is very dangerous. This assumes that our rights are creations of government itself, and that the same government that grants us rights has the power to take them away.

The origin of our rights was very subtly discussed in several of the first ten amendments to the Constitution. They discuss, for example, “the free exercise” of religion, “the right to keep and bear arms,” “the freedom of speech” and “the right […] to be secure.” Each of the aforementioned rights has the word “the” in front of them. This sounds trivial, but it means that these rights predate the Constitution, and exist in absence of the Constitution, or any government whatsoever. They also exist despite what governments may do to restrict them. In other words, our rights do not come from the Government, and the fact that governments throughout the world frequently restrict natural rights doesn't change the fact that the people in these countries have these rights. An Iranian citizen has the same freedom of religion as an American citizen, even though his government refuses to acknowledge that right.

Our rights do not come from governments; they come from God. 2 Nephi 2:27 explains:

Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.

We have the freedom to believe what we want, the freedom to write what we want, to say what to we want, and to defend ourselves and our property from aggression, and to act in whatsoever way does not infringe upon the rights of any other person.

The confusion regarding rights stems from misunderstanding what constitutes a right. Rights are frequently confused for goods and services. This assumption is incorrect, because a right necessarily stems from the freedom to choose. The key difference between a right and a good or a service is that since our rights preexist even ourselves, nobody needs to provide us with them. Rights can be simultaneously exercised by the whole human family. Everybody can, at the same time, believe what they want, say what they want, and defend themselves from aggression of others (although if everybody is defending, there are no aggressors.) Thus, my exercise of a right can never come at the expense of somebody else's exercise of their rights.

Food, healthcare, service in airports, education, and mortgages refinances are NOT rights, because they must be provided by another person, and at the expense of that person's time, talents, or financial resources. This makes them goods (if they are tangible things, like food or iPods,) or services (like healthcare, education, and the general labor of other people.) Everybody has the right to pursue whatever goods and services they desire, and in a free society, people exchange goods and services for other goods and services on the free market. But nobody has a right to any good or service whatsoever. In fact, the government creation of a “right to healthcare” means that, if necessary, the government could compel doctors to perform healthcare services against their will. This is a breach of the natural rights of the doctor by every reasonable definition.

Many goods and services are necessary for survival (Food, Water, Housing,) or important for the progress of a society (healthcare, education, bacon,) but their necessity or utility does not make them rights. 17th Century philosopher, Lysander Spooner believed it to be a “moral obligation” to provide necessary goods and services to the needy, but only when done of one's own free will. He wrote, "Man, no doubt, owes many other moral duties to his fellow men; such as to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, protect the defenceless, assist the weak, and enlighten the ignorant. But these are simply moral duties, of which each man must be his own judge, in each particular case, as to whether, and how, and how far, he can, or will, perform them."

In other words, only free people can decide how to fulfill their own moral obligation to help the less fortunate. When money is taken through taxation (legal plunder) and given to the less fortunate, it is a breach of the natural rights of those who are taxed. Nobody has a right to somebody else's productivity.

So, to sum it all up, rights come from God, can be exercised by everybody at the same time, and don't breach the rights of others. A good government must “secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life,” (D&C 134:2) among other rights, but does not provide those rights.



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