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.]