Sunday, November 28, 2004


Rights vs. Entitlements

Mark Noonan notes:

In our Declaration of Independence, we hold it to be self-evident truth that we are endowed by our Creator with certain, unalienable rights - and this is the key, in my view; a right must be something which is inherent in an individual human being. If its not something inherent to a human being, then it is a privilege, not a right.

There seems to be some confusion in this country between the concept of entitlement and right. An entitlement is when government, in a form of redistribution of wealth, decides that members of its community have the privilege to do something, like have free education, access to free lunches if they quality, drive a car.

Some people are claiming that health care, for instance should be a right of all citizens.

Yet when we look carefully at the concept of rights in the history of the American experiment, we see rights are interpreted as something else than entitlements or special privileges. Rights are considered something basic to the human condition, and usually involve, in the classic American formula, guarantees from abuse of power and the right to participate in the political process.

A quick look back at the Declaration of Independence gives us the concept Jefferson and the other founders were dealing with:

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. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...
Governments in this view derive their purpose from the governed in order to secure rights that are inherent, not as grants from the government, but as inherent in the persons of the governed.

There's been a lot of complaint about voters not voting in their self-interest this time around, in part because the complainers thought that the voters should be wanting entitlements to a piece of the public pie instead of rights that are inherent and traditional to the American way of life. Some people went so far as to call those who disagreed with them stupid, and that there ought to be a way that they, who were not stupid, should be able to force this reasonable concept on the ones who weren't convinced or voted differently.

But one of the basic concepts of rights in America is that each person contributes - all are created equal in the political sphere and their right to participate in the procedure outweighs any elite telling them that this is the way we must do things.

If we do a quick review of the bedrock of our freedom, the Bill of Rights we will see that these rights fall mostly into protecting the rights of people from those with power or from letting government overstep the authority the founding members considered bedrock:

Rights of:
freedom of speech,
freedom to worship or not,
freedom of the press,
freedom to assemble
freedom to petition the government
freedom to bear arms
freedom to due process

Right to be protected from:

<>billeting soldiers without agreeing to it
unlawful search and seizure
having property seized without compensation
freedom from excessive bail

In the American experiment, the concept of liberty, then determined that citizens were NOT chattels of the the government, nor were their goods. They don't belong to the state, in the socialist way, as a cog in the machinery. The machinery exists for them.

It hasn't been easy, and it has taken awhile to decide who then has the right to this liberty. For example, the voting franchise first was restricted to people with property, then to white males, then later to females and people of different racial backgrounds. It was a hard fight, but the concept was a spreading of the idea of who had these rights, not because of some grant of the government entitled them to perks, but because the government acknowledged that the inherent rights enshrined in the rules the country was set out with actually covered these groups as well.

These rights aren't privileges given out by the state. They are basic, inherent, and true. This is one of the reasons why America basically doesn't have one law for citizens and another law for foreigners - because we hold these truths to be self-evident: all men are created equal.

It's not perfect, but it is the great American experiment, and perhaps, all those who thought people weren't voting in their self interest actually were - for the rights that they consider bedrock to the country, that are more important, sometimes, than economic self-interest, and give meaning to all that this country has suffered and died for. Entitlements come and entitlements go, because they are granted by the state. But to Americans, the rights are the bedrock all else is built on.

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