Friday, March 25, 2011

How to Tell What Is a Right

Today’s blog post is excerpted from the end of the article Free Enterprise vs. Controlled Economy, at Spherical Model. (The tab title is actually Economic World for brevity.) Why repeat it hear? It’s a good length for a relatively short post, while being an important idea. That will do for a Friday. One of the advantages of a blog is that I have permission to quote myself, or to reword at will. So…

There is a premise on the other side that people have a right to certain economic success—one of those “positive rights” pressed so hard by FDR. Let’s be clear on what a right is: it is not a privilege, something you might be granted under certain circumstances. It is something that you deserve simply for being human. You do not have to earn a right; you can’t rightfully be deprived of it (with possible forfeitures such as committing capital crimes). If it is a right, it does not come from government; it comes from God. Government may use its power to either guarantee a person’s rights, or to deprive a person of his rights. Restraint from depriving a person of his rights is not equivalent to granting rights. Rights simply do not come from government.

So, if something is a right, it is a person’s natural right whether there is a government entity guaranteeing it or not.

We’re born naked, impoverished, and inexperienced. It is by growth, hard work, and gaining in expertise that we try to overcome this condition throughout our life. We are born with the right to life, the right to live free (not enslaved), and the right to pursue our own path to overcome the naked impoverished state.

Do we have a right to clothing? Well, it’s sure nice to have the appropriate clothing when you live through a northern winter. But is it your neighbor’s obligation to work to provide your clothing? Or is that your own obligation? Would it be good of your neighbor to give you his surplus clothing if he saw you were in need? Yes. But his giving it to you is charity, or philanthropy, not an obligation to meet your right. If he had no surplus, but just enough clothing to keep himself from freezing, would it be his obligation to give up a coat to you? No. If he were heroic, he might work out a way to share with you and perhaps keep you both alive. But he is not obligated to do so. So, your clothing is not his obligation. Providing clothing for someone other than self is a charitable act.

At the basic level, the relationship of parent to child is charitable. The parent can clearly see that the child cannot provide his own clothing, so the parent, showing his care for the child, provides that clothing. Same with food. You might even say that the parent has an obligation to feed, clothe, shelter, and nurture the child, because the parent brought the child into the world and therefore has an obligation to that child. But the obligation isn’t without limit. The parent nurtures the child to be capable of feeding, clothing, and sheltering himself. And then, at that point, the parent no longer has the obligation to provide. If the grown child lost a job, and had a temporary need for economic help, it might be that the parent could step in and offer food, clothing, and shelter from his surplus (charity). But the parent would have no such obligation to a grown and capable child who lacked means simply because of unwillingness to work for them. And that parent would have absolutely no obligation to provide from his hard-earned supply to a lazy child of the neighbor down the road.

So, even though we need them, we do not have a right to food, clothing, and shelter. Ditto for a furnished apartment, a television, telephone, medical care, air conditioning, or a car. [Ditto, I might add, health care insurance.] Nice to have. Important to have. Maybe even necessary to have in order to progress. But it is a capable person’s own obligation to work to provide these necessities for himself.

In a civilized society, there will be a desire to somehow provide these necessities to those who are not capable of taking care of themselves: the impoverished because of illness, accident, injury, or lowered mental capacity. But it is philanthropy that fills the need—not government taking from a producer by force to give to a non-producer.

[Philanthropy, or charity, solutions were the subject of yesterday’s post.]


  1. I entirely agree with the principle. Very nice post.

  2. But a warning, while government (when operating properly) may protect our rights, government that forces anyone to help provide a service or good for another is unjust.

    Protection of our rights is just as much a good or service as clothing or food. Government may be a provider of it, but only so much as it is done consistently with this principle.