On Rights and Responsibilities

03/29/10

by John Eberhard

With the recent debate over the health care reform bill, there has been a lot of talk about rights, with many liberals insisting that health care is a right.

Now that the health care bill has passed, the debate on rights is in no way over. So I thought it would be a good time to explore this issue of “rights,” and how it is related to responsibilities.

Columnist Walter Williams, in a recent article on Townhall.com entitled “Is Healthcare a Right?,” had some very interesting comments on rights.

“True rights, such as those in our Constitution, or those considered to be natural or human rights, exist simultaneously among people. That means exercise of a right by one person does not diminish those held by another. In other words, my rights to speech or travel impose no obligations on another except those of non-interference. If we apply ideas behind rights to health care to my rights to speech or travel, my free speech rights would require government-imposed obligations on others to provide me with an auditorium, television studio or radio station. My right to travel freely would require government-imposed obligations on others to provide me with airfare and hotel accommodations.

“For Congress to guarantee a right to health care, or any other good or service, whether a person can afford it or not, it must diminish someone else’s rights, namely their rights to their earnings. The reason is that Congress has no resources of its very own. Moreover, there is no Santa Claus, Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy giving them those resources. The fact that government has no resources of its very own forces one to recognize that in order for government to give one American citizen a dollar, it must first, through intimidation, threats and coercion, confiscate that dollar from some other American. If one person has a right to something he did not earn, of necessity it requires that another person not have a right to something that he did earn.

“To argue that people have a right that imposes obligations on another is an absurd concept. A better term for new-fangled rights to health care, decent housing and food is wishes. If we called them wishes, I would be in agreement with most other Americans for I, too, wish that everyone had adequate health care, decent housing and nutritious meals. However, if we called them human wishes, instead of human rights, there would be confusion and cognitive dissonance. The average American would cringe at the thought of government punishing one person because he refused to be pressed into making someone else’s wish come true.”

Williams’ definition of rights as something you are allowed to do, but that does not obligate anyone else to do anything for you, appears to be more in alignment with the Founders’ concept of rights as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.

If you accept Williams’ definition, then health care, as well as things like social security or even free education, are not rights.

Now I want to explore another issue related to rights, and that is responsibility. I believe that rights and responsibilities are intimately linked.

Imagine a scale of responsibility. At the top of the scale would be a person who takes responsibility not only for himself but also helps and takes responsibility for many other entities besides himself. Further down the scale would be a person who only takes care of himself. Then at 0 on the scale would be a person who takes no responsibility for himself and allows others to take care of his physical needs. Going further down the scale below 0, we would find criminals, who not only don’t take responsibility for themselves but who actively take from and harm others.

My idea on this is that as one takes more responsibility in life, one should receive more rights. And the inverse is true too, which is to say, that as one takes less and less responsibility, one should receive fewer rights.

We already see this operating in society in certain ways. As children grow up and start taking more responsibility for themselves, they are given more rights. For example, as a child reaches 16 and is judged by his parents as being able to be responsible for the operation of a car and the safety of its occupants, he is given the right to drive.

But we also see the inverse operating too. When a criminal violates the rights of others to their property or life, society takes away certain of his rights, such as the right to liberty, or in severe cases, the right to his life. This is proper and correct that his rights are lessened, as per the above scale, he has gone into the negative. He has ceased to be a contributing member of society and slipped into the role of a liability. For example, if one breaks the laws regarding drinking and driving, one loses his license.

I believe most people know this instinctively, which is why we object to excessive rights being offered to criminals, or indeed, to enemy combatants.

Another example of how this can go haywire is people who take less and less responsibility for themselves and their physical needs, but demanding that society as a whole, i.e. the government, supply their needs. This is the entitlement mentality that we see more and more prevalent today.

I haven’t worked this out in detail as far as how the scale should look, and at what point one should receive more or fewer rights. But I believe the basic concept is sound. Rights and responsibilities are inextricably linked.

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