Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Right is a Restriction

The use of the term “right”, as in ‘Americans have a right to…,’ has become watered down and incorrectly used in far too many instances. Generally, a right is a restriction on the authority of the government. By reserving certain powers to individuals, a right limits the strength of the government and prevents abuses of its citizens. However, a right is not an obligation to provide. While governments are, in some instances, obligated to provide certain items, these obligations are not rights. The distinction, while seemingly slight, is an important one that is often muddled in the popular arena.

Rights, as properly understood, are simply a restriction. They offer no direct provision to individuals. To understand this better one only needs to understand the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. For instance, Americans have the right to free speech and the right to religion. In the first instance, the right prevents the government from limiting what any individual can say. In the second instance, the right prevents the government from imposing a religion on any individual. In neither case is the government required to provide something to an individual. Other rights, such as the right to bear arms, can be understood in the same way. The right to bear arms is a restriction on the government’s monopolization of power. It prevents the government from encroaching on the personal lives of individuals, by restricting power.

However, many politicians incorrectly use the term ‘right’ to refer to certain things the government provides. Often this language is used in an attempt to expand entitlements and services. By using this language, politicians aim to make the provision of such items unassailable. This use, however, is incorrect when dealing with the rights an individual has vis-à-vis the government.

The ‘right to a minimum wage’ and the ‘right to healthcare’ are two such false rights. The reason these are not true rights is because they require the government to provide a service. A ‘right to a minimum wage’ demands that the government provide the means and structure for an individual to be provided with a certain wage. The ‘right to healthcare’ that is generally discussed when politicians try to cobble together a health reform package essentially demands that the government either directly or indirectly (eg. by establishing a legal system to force the provision from private sector) provides healthcare to every American. Since rights are defined as the restriction not the expansion of government roles, these claims cannot be rights. A properly defined right to healthcare would simply be defined as a restriction on the government not to prevent individuals from purchasing healthcare. Obviously, this is a relatively meaningless right and not what most proponents of a ‘right to healthcare’ discuss.

Civil rights are also an area where this distinction is very often incorrectly applied. Citizens undoubtedly have the right not to be persecuted or discriminated against based on racial, sexual, or other characteristics. The government is not allowed this power. However, civil rights do not mean that the government has an obligation to provide anything to people based on these same characteristics. In fact, if such an obligation existed it would most certainly violate other citizens’ rights (read: affirmative action).

The point of such a distinction is to correctly define the use of the term ‘rights’ in order to better understand the role of the government. Many policies on the left, and some on the right, tend to dismiss this definition of ‘right’ in order to expand the role of government and provide benefits to narrow slices of the electorate. However, by applying such a definition it is relatively easy to come to a conclusion as to the appropriate role of the government.

[As an added caveat the correct use of the word ‘rights’ does not imply that the government has no positive obligations. What is not a right reserved to the people (or states) is often a role for the government to play. For instance, the government has an obligation to protect its citizens from each other (policing) and from external threats (military). This positive action is something the government must provide its citizens. However, it does not mean that such a positive obligation is a right that the citizens possess.]


  1. Josh--

    I'm not sure I follow your thesis, but the role of government goes beyond providing "rights" for people against itself; it serves to protect and enhance their well-being as well. The pursuits to this end vary and define, in very, very general terms, American liberalism and conservatism: liberals believe in government as a force to protect the people from the perils of over-empowered privatization, while conservatives tend to believe the converse.

    At least one yahoo caught on camera during August's health-care uproar said that although he carried a copy of the constitution in his pocket, he couldn't find the right to universal health care in it. Of course he couldn't, because the bedrock laws of this country don't entitle individuals to finer sociological improvements like health care and automobile safety standards; rather, our founders intended for the citizenry to elect and empower those who put forth policies a majority of Americans agree with.

    Nuance is the key to these kind of arguments, which your post doesn't address: yes, we have a second amendment to enable the people to overthrow their government, but we would agree that government has a responsibility to protect its citizens at home, hence positions like gun control which provide shades of gray.

    Affirmative action, a policy which I think has become outdated and abused, is not the argument; the question is whether the government had the right in 1964 to pass a Civil Rights Act and to stop places like Mississippi from denying blacks equal rights. Genuine conservatives like Barry Goldwater — by no means a racist — opposed the legislation, citing too much government influence. History, it need not be said, has definitively proved his position wrong.

    It's no longer enough for people like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin to take philosophically different positions against liberals anymore; to listen to their shows on any given day is to hear diatribes against a hostile force intent on destroying America. To argue that members of the left "tend to dismiss this definition of ‘right’ in order to expand the role of government and provide benefits to narrow slices of the electorate" is an oversimplification that ignores many common-sense policies and debates that Americans should feel encouraged to have in order to form a more perfect union.


  2. Karl~

    Thanks for your post. I don't tend to disagree with what you say, but I think you missed the narrowness of my argument. I was only intending on offering a definition of 'rights'. I wholeheartedly agree that the government has a role to protect, which I think I stated, although I'm not sure I necessarily agree with the role to enhance the citizens' well being.

    One error you make is by using the phrase "providing 'rights'". I think the essense of my argument is precisely that the government does not provide rights, but is restricted by rights.

    I think you are correct in stating that nuance is important. However I think understanding the theoretical grounds from which we argue is equally important. One is naturally lead to very different conclusions if one accepts this definition.

    For instance, in your example of civil rights I would argue that every citizens has the right to be 'treated equally'. This means the government is prevented from treating one differently than his neighbor based on race. However, by extending the defintion of 'right' to something that the government must provide, this changes the defintion of 'treated equally'. Under this defintion it would mean that the government has to provide equal treatment - eg affirmative action - by actively making sure each man is equal. I think this second definition fails.

    The nuance which you speak to is exactly what I am trying to get at by emphasizing the sublety in language. When Southern states violated the rights of their citizens by failing to refrain from encroaching on the powers that were supposed to be reservered to the people, the Federal government had a responsibility to ensure protection. Protection, however, is not what I was discussing here.

    To be clear 'rights' are restrictions on the government, while 'protection' is one of posssibly many responsibilities of a government. How far protection must go is certainly a debate - increased protection many times infringes on others' rights. This was not a focus of this article though.

    I don't think this oversimplifies the issue I think it calls out many across the political spectrum for disingenious use of the concept of right. Don't argue for universal health-care by claiming it is a right. That just muddies the debate and frustrates people, hence your anecodte. Instead, if you are for universal healthcare argue it on other grounds - eg. the government has a responsibility to protect individuals health. As I am sure you are thinking this seems like a weaker argument - which was precisely one of my points. 'Rights'-speak can easily trumph other claims. After all, its nearly impossible in America to try to deny someone their rights.


  3. Josh--

    I agree there is a distinction between "natural" rights — those that human beings are naturally entitled to, regardless of the wishes of their government — and "social" rights, which are much more subjective. I wouldn't say that universal health care, as an example, is a "right" in the manner that John Locke would have envisioned, but I would say that the citizens of the United States should expect the health care standards equal to or beyond those of Western Europe.

    "Rights" indicate a sense of entitlement, and thus, is a term that is absolutely overused in this country on issues where its pure meaning is distorted. And no, rights aren't provided by the government — an unfortunate use of language that I should have corrected upon editing my comment.

    But I guess what I'm trying to say is that rights are not just intended to limit the overreach of government; the government is also charged with enforcing and protecting rights as well, part of the social contract inherent in any civilization that calls itself a liberal democracy.

    I suspect you and I are closer on this argument than either of us have acknowledged.


  4. Karl~

    I think you are correct. Other than a brief aside I didn't mention protecting but I agree it is another aspect of government. I think it is important to make the distinction in order to full justify certain policies.

    If your premise that US citizens should expect healthcare of the quality of Western Europe is correct and we cannot classify healthcare as a right, we are left with the question of how these citizens are to meet this expectation. If it is successfully classified as a right the answer is simply it is the government's responsibility. This silences the debate on what is the best way to meet this expectation.

    But yes, I do think our opinions are not too far off.



"Reading makes a full man, meditation a profound man, discourse a clear man." - Benjamin Franklin

Please leave comments!