Wednesday, December 21, 2016

My Thoughts on Rights vs. Privileges

Writing for me isn’t like riding a bike. It is a habit more than a skill, one that if I don’t engage in it regularly, I struggle to step up to the plate when time affords. So when I solicited writing topics a short time ago on Facebook, I hoped to prod myself into action.

Well, here it is a month later and the only piece I’ve published is about Star Wars. But one of those topics offered a month ago did intrigue me. A libertarian friend asked the question “What Are Rights?”, and followed by posting his own thread soliciting opinions. Unfortunately, that thread quickly reached 100 comments, and I’ll admit to having read none. Instead I’ll offer my own opinion.

I am not well-educated on the philosophy of rights, but I found this Jason Brennan video to be a good primer on the subject, and one that ends at just about the right place for me to begin. The first thought experiment Prof. Brennan references illustrates most of my beliefs when it comes to rights:

We only have the right to something where it would not in turn deprive another of their own rights.

Though our rights are codified in the Constitution, they are not created by it. They existed to be codified long before that document was written; it simply serves to outline how those rights should ultimately be protected within our boundaries. But not every human need or interest is a right. I’ll illustrate with a couple of examples as to how I distinguish what are rights from what I would consider a privilege, which a good many people these days misconstrue as rights. Before doing so however, I’ll provide a couple of examples of what I believed (until Nov 9th) were agreed upon as rights in our country at least.

Right to Free Speech

This is probably the most straightforward one. My freedom to speak what I believe to be true does not deprive anyone of any right. If I say I don’t believe in God, that doesn’t inhibit your freedom to practice religion. If I say that I don’t believe people should carry firearms, that doesn’t limit you from doing so. My saying something does not prevent you from exercising any right whatsoever. And having that right is binary, by having the freedom to exercise it, you have the freedom to not do so at your convenience.

The right must be exercised responsibly of course, and that is why the ‘believe to be true’ clause above is important. If I just say whatever I feel, regardless of any knowledge of its veracity, and it causes some material harm in reputation or standing to another individual, that is not defensible speech, and we have laws to tell us such. But speech itself is among the most easily defended rights.

Right to Bear Arms

I am not going to go into any Constitutional law here about the ‘standing army’ clause because it is ultimately irrelevant. I have the right to own and carry a firearm, and my doing so does not affect any of your rights. Now the obvious argument might be that me carrying a gun makes you less likely to speak your mind freely under threat of reprisal, but that is your perception, it is not a result of any action taken on my part.

That right to bear arms is an extension of one’s right to defend his person or property from violence, and to provide food and sustenance for himself. A firearm may not be necessary to the accomplishment of those things, but it does in fact help a great deal. And my right is to bear arms, not to acquire them or possess them, so no manufacturer or retailer is responsible for ensuring that I am given one to bear.

The Privilege of Education

I do not have the right to an education. This is an area which the word ‘right’ is frequently misapplied, with folks talking about all of the positive impacts of an ‘educated society’. And while some of those cannot be argued, that does not mean that I am entitled to an education at the expense of the labors and efforts of others. Let me expand upon this and break it down into a couple of different areas.

First, any kind of guided instruction requires the labors of another individual, and I am not entitled to those labors. Even at the most basic level of instruction, which one would likely argue is home-schooling, I am not entitled to the labors of my parents, they choose to give them willingly, likely in exchange for foregoing an income from another fruitful enterprise. Thus they are providing me something of value, for which they hope they can receive a return. That is my privilege, not my right.

Extend that to public education, and you have instruction that is being paid for by taxpayers, at least some of which will not be enrolling a student themselves (even if at a future point in time after their own child’s graduation). Thus we are taking the fruits of their labors in the form of income taxes, or by placing a levy on private property, and offering those funds to the children of others. For the purposes of this discussion, whether this is right or wrong is irrelevant, it is simply not my right to use someone else’s money to pay for a service from which only my family receives benefit (otherwise I could commandeer such funds for a new car to get me to work, or a new cell phone to use for Facebooking). Furthermore, I do not have the right to compel any teacher or administrator to perform these duties. If they choose to resign, for any reason, I cannot compel them to perform the duties of their job. That is not my right.

And though some may argue ‘I have the right to educate myself’, that is only true in part. You have the right to learn, but you do not have the right to the materials necessary to accomplish an education, similar to the right to bear arms. You must purchase or procure those materials, with your money or another’s, and even a library is not ‘free’.

The Privilege of Health Care

We live in a country where health care is broadly available. Let me be clear, I am talking about care and not insurance. I can walk into a doctor’s office, and receive care. But it is at the doctor’s discretion as to how they are to be compensated for this – they set their terms of service. And make no mistake, health care is a service rendered by a professional – doctor, nurse, physician’s assistant, etc. – who has spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours acquiring the skills necessary to provide this service.

To say I have a right to health care would mean that I can compel that service without personally providing compensation. However, that professional still needs to be compensated for their time and acquired skill. That means that even if the doctor says that they are waiving the fees they charge you, they will offset those costs by charging another patient extra to make up the difference. This is similar to the public education scenario above.

“Ah, but single payer would solve everything!” Wrong. Single payer would prevent professionals from getting the full value of their services because there would be no free market for them any longer. Taxpayers would be forced to foot the bill for every medical student’s debt obligation because they could not charge a rate commensurate with their repayment obligations. And individual’s driven by a lucrative income would be pushed out of the medical field into areas of industry or research that may provide the potential they sought by utilizing their own skills.

The bottom line is: when you walk into a clinic, you don’t have a right to an MRI, nor to a EKG, nor to a simple reflex test. Each of these requires equipment, training, and time that was the responsibility – personally and financially - of another to acquire, and to require that they provide that as your right is depriving them of their own rights by compelling their labor without compensation, a practice we conventionally refer to as slavery.


We are afforded certain rights by living in a free society, but it gets less free each year that people conflate rights with privileges. What I am entitled to is one thing, but what I have the opportunity to engage in as a free-market transaction is something else altogether. And we limit the potential of persons of all callings when we begin to say that they are required to offer their services at terms we dictate.

It is this that has led to public school teacher salaries being below what might be considered market rate for their services (but which is actually offset by other considerations of the job, including emotional satisfaction), while administration positions and salaries have exploded over the four decades in which federal government has overseen public education.

And it is this that endangers our very health care system, considered the finest in the world, because people believe they have the right to the skills that it required so much of another to acquire. Whether these things are given freely is not up to us, it is up to those who have invested of themselves to be of such value. And by compelling them to act as indentured servants, beholden to taxpayers, will immediately diminish that value and make us all worse off. And that is not our right.

What are ‘rights’ to you? Which do you find to be in question? Comment below.

1 comment: