The nature of rights, and of wishes

I’ve written on the nature of rights in the past, most recently in the ridiculous context of whether Internet access is a “fundamental human right.” When Walter Williams helps to underscore a point I’ve made, though, I have no problem revisiting the discussion.  The eminent George Mason University scholar wrote a brief but powerful argument against the assignment of “rights” to what should be called “wishes,” or perhaps more elegantly, “aspirations” for our fellow human beings:

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.

None of my argument is to argue against charity. Reaching into one’s own pockets to assist his fellow man in need is praiseworthy and laudable. Reaching into someone else’s pockets to do so is despicable and deserves condemnation.

The simultaneous existence point is essential to understanding rights, and why innate rights do not require confiscation.  Essentially, the acknowledgement of innate natural rights treats each individual as an equal.  No one has more of a right than another to the freedom of worship, of thought, of speech, or of property.  To treat health care as a ‘right’ means that one individual’s right has precedence over another’s.  That requires, eventually, the use of force to resolve.  It’s the antithesis of both equality and freedom.  That is why the founders’ original conception of rights and liberty didn’t include aspirations like health care, food, shelter, or equal wealth, but only of those rights innate to each individual, bordered at the individual instead of the community.

If one believes that each human being has a “right” to health care, the Internet, or pasta primavera (without salt), then eventually one has to confiscate all of these from the people that provide them.  After all, not everyone has the cash for saltless pasta primavera.  It falls to government to redistribute the pasta primavera wealth by first engaging in some form of confiscation, of either cash to buy it or the pasta primavera itself.  That devalues the property and choice rights of some to the desires of the many.

As a society, we should aspire to making ourselves successful enough that all of us can afford to buy the essentials of life, including the occasional pasta primavera. But no one has a right to the goods or services of another, and those political-economic systems that have made that assumption have proven themselves over the last century to be the antithesis of both liberty and prosperity.  (via QandO)