Time to reexamine rights

by Maxford Nelsen

Quality education is a human right. Everyone also has a right to Social Security and health care.

Sound familiar? Those are just a few examples of things commonly assumed to be fundamental rights. However, while I agree that things like quality education, secure retirement and adequate health care are certainly good and worth pursuing, I do not believe they should be classified as human rights.

For practical purposes, it is impossible to separate rights from government. However, there are two ways to think about rights. First, there are negative rights. In essence, negative rights are protections against government interference. They include things like the freedom of speech, religion and the press. They also include being free from other types of government interference, like being searched or detained arbitrarily. Those were the types of rights the Constitution was initially created to protect.

But after a time, happy, prosperous America grew tired of having only those rights. We wanted more. Americans now believe they have a God-given right to anything they want badly enough, including government programs or services.

For instance, Glenn Derene of Popular Mechanics explains how all U.S. TV broadcasts went digital in 2009. People getting their TV from analog broadcasts would lose their service without a converter box. According to Derene, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration provided free coupons for the boxes, at a cost to taxpayers of around $1.5 billion. Apparently, Americans have a right to watch TV.

While that example is on a different level than education, it illustrates what are referred to as positive rights: guarantees of government services, as opposed to protections from government interference. Those include government-provided services like education and now health care. The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has a human right to “periodic holidays with pay” and “protection against unemployment.” But are those really rights?

First, it must be established that universal human rights must be grounded in a conception of God. The Founding Fathers appealed to God as the authority which stood above government as the source of human rights. Without an external standard to govern human behavior, we each become our own law. A relativistic system simply cannot provide a moral basis for even the most basic human rights.

Second, if God is the source of human rights, then those rights must be fundamental to all humans, at all times and in all places. However, positive rights to government services fail this standard. For instance, if we say a modern level of education is a human right, then where does that leave children being educated 50 or 100 or 200 years ago? They could not have had a right to the same kind of education we demand today, since the technology and resources simply did not exist yet. Thus, a modern education is not a human birthright, but dependent upon circumstances.

Another way to tell if something is truly a right is to examine the practicality of providing it. If it is not always possible for a right to exist, then it is not fundamental. For instance, take the supposed right to “protection against unemployment.” Obviously, it is simply impossible for the government to provide jobs for everyone; it has a hard enough time affording to pay unemployment benefits. The government of Greece is drastically cutting its generous social services because trying to provide for so many supposed rights has bankrupted the country.

However, there are no circumstances under which the government would be incapable of recognizing the right to free speech, religion or similar negative rights, because those rights only require government inaction; it does not cost the government anything to not censure political speech, for instance.

That is not to say education or unemployment protection and the like are not good and desirable; they are just not fundamental human rights.

So why does any of this matter? Simply put, it distorts our priorities. We have become so fixated on demanding the government do things for us that we have forgotten the importance of the government leaving us alone. As Barry Goldwater aptly observed, “a government that is big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away.”

Where was the outcry when the Syrian government began shelling civilians in Homs, or when Obama signed the 2012 Defense Authorization Act into law, allowing for the indefinite detention of American citizens without warrant? But on any given day, Whitworth students can be found advocating equal education or health care.

Instead of crusading for these causes as basic rights, we should work towards providing them in a sound and efficient manner. Instead of striving for government-enforced equality, we should work towards providing the best services possible for the most people, recognizing that a free market, though not perfectly equal, often provides services better than the government. In this way, we can keep our real rights in perspective and get down to the practical business of improving people’s quality of life.

Nelsen is a senior majoring in political science. Comments can be sent to mnelsen13@my.whitworth.edu.

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