There was a moment in the CNN Debate between Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders when the Senate’s senior socialist thought he had his Texan colleague dead to rights. Sanders asked Cruz whether he believed that every American is entitled to healthcare “as a right.”
Cruz, wisely, did not take the bait. He differentiated between the right to healthcare, which does not exist, and the right to access healthcare, which he readily conceded does exist. Sanders exploded, yelling that “access doesn’t mean a damn thing” if the government doesn’t pay for it for every citizen. Therefore, the Sanders argument goes, if it isn’t paid for by the government, it is the denial of a right.
The Left Uses ‘Rights’ Language To Further Their Agenda
This tactic isn’t confined to the healthcare debate. A look at the demands of the left which were voiced during the “Women’s March” reveal a laundry list of “rights” being “denied” in this country, including (but not limited to) taxpayer funded abortion on demand. And Kamala Harris one-upped everyone when she tweeted her belief that an infrastructure bill was “a human rights issue.”
Notice anything? There’s a recurring theme here. People, especially progressive politicians, often refer to every item in their agenda that is not yet realized as a “right”. This is true whether it’s a new government welfare program, or an attempt to further socially engineer the country. It’s an interesting choice of wording, but one that is not without reason.
FDR Gave Us The Progressive Conception Of ‘Rights’
To understand this better, we need to go back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In the early 20th century, the American left attacked the idea of personal “rights” as the cause of wealth inequality. They argued for a more powerful government, one that could secure a more just and equal society. But they ran into resistance, as Americans have always valued the rights given to us by God and codified by our founders. So FDR came up with an ingenious idea to help resell. The desired end is the same—he just repackaged and sold it using conservative ideals.
It wasn’t enough anymore, Roosevelt said, to confine ourselves to “certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.” In a growing nation, he argued, “these political rights have proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.”
To correct these deficiencies, he said, we must supplement them with what he referred to as “a second Bill of Rights.” This would address the “economic truths [which] have become accepted as self-evident.” These included the right to “a decent home,” the “right to a good education,” the right to “adequate health care,” and of course, the “right to a useful and remunerative job”.
What Happens When Government Programs Become ‘Rights’
Of course, none of these are rights. They may or may not be desirable ends of government, depending on how you understand the proper function of government. But there is a reason FDR chose to frame these issues as rights. It is because legitimate rights cannot be abridged or compromised under almost any circumstance.
By calling these government programs “rights,” Roosevelt convinced people that these are things we must provide to American citizens—no matter what. Do you disagree as to whether the government ought to provide them? You are depriving people of their rights.
Thus, FDR became the godfather of the modern progressive movement. He figured out how to shut down the discussion, so that nobody could effectively argue against an expanded welfare state. In doing so, he created a blueprint that progressives still use today.
So What Are Our ‘Rights,’ Exactly?
So what are rights, exactly? And what are they not?
According to John Locke, “rights” provide the basis upon which people consent to join society. The idea that people have a reasonable expectation to every left wing social welfare program—and that they wouldn’t want to be included in society without them—simply doesn’t pass the laugh test.
Additionally, Rights cannot be resource-dependent. (If they could be, we couldn’t have an expectation to them—no matter what the government’s economic situation might be.) One can reasonably expect the government to provide (or sustain) the original rights at all times. The same cannot be said for Roosevelt’s “rights,” or any of the others that came after. One cannot have a reasonable expectation of material wellbeing at all times.
The Government Is Not Required To Give Us Anything
It is important to make this distinction when we discuss the original rights, as well. While we have the right to a free press, the government needn’t provide citizens with their own printing press. We have the right to bear arms—but the government isn’t required to provide us with them. And so on.
In the Declaration of Independence, the unalienable rights enumerated are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. None of these entail that the government give anyone anything. Government does not bestow upon us Life or Liberty. We are entitled to pursue happiness unhindered, but the government is under no obligation to us to make us happy—nor should we ever think that we have a reasonable expectation to that.
That is, perhaps, the most vital point that needs to be made here. Rights are inalienable, mostly because people aren’t getting anything from anyone else. But when society decides it is in the best interest of the public to confer a benefit upon those less well off—or even the entire country—it is doing just that: giving something to them, not at all unlike charity.
People Don’t Have A Moral Claim To Social Welfare
Believing that people should provide for others via charity does not mean a pauper can take money from those who have it without their consent. In such a case, the beneficiaries aren’t getting something they are entitled to—for the simple reason that they aren’t entitled to anything.
The same is true of social welfare programs. Those who benefit from such programs are beneficiaries of the largesse of society as a whole. But does the recipient have a moral claim to these benefits? In the case of rights, the recipient most certainly does. In the case of government benefits, they most certainly do not.
For this same reason, we would do well not to refer to entitlements (other than those which are paid in to, with either money or service) by using that very term. This was originally done deprecatorily, but for many people it has become factual. (Bernie Sanders said he underlined the word entitled when he asked his question of Senator Cruz.) No person is “entitled” to anything from anyone else’s pocket. People most certainly have a moral obligation to care for others, and the government may or may not have a role in facilitating that. But that’s about as far as it goes.
What Happens When Everything Becomes A ‘Right’
When we begin referring to everything as a “right,” the deleterious effects are twofold.
First, it cheapens the meaning of the word, by lumping together those which are not rights with the original rights. If someone were to (rightfully) dismiss the Rooseveltian ideal of a well-paying job (read: higher minimum wage) as something the economy can’t sustain, why should they not then also dismiss other rights—such as the right to bear arms—with the argument that it cannot be sustained?
It also creates a situation in which these new, more positive “rights” can come into direct conflict with the original rights. If the new “rights” weren’t understood as such, it wouldn’t even be a problem. Any reasonable American would agree that the government can’t infringe on one person’s rights in order to provide a service for another. But now, Americans are conflicted over which “rights” ought to take precedence—thereby further weakening the original rights.
How ‘Rights’ Language Is Destroying Younger Generations
But perhaps worst of all, our “rights” debate has deleteriously impacted society. For decades, politicians have told Americans, young and old, that everything they can think of giving them to secure their votes is a “right” they had all along. It’s created a generation which now sees anything they want (or feel they need) as a right—something they deserve to get. If you don’t want to give it to them, you are depriving them of their rights.
Is it any surprise that young people feel victimized by the government—and not for valid reasons like overregulation and an unfair tax code?
They feel like victims because they haven’t gotten enough from the government. Their “rights” are not being given to them, unlike the generations before them, who have each created their own “rights” in order to get “stuff.” The political left capitalizes on this, promising a “revolution” which will create a just and equal society, legitimate rights be darned.
We have to educate people, especially young people, as to the difference between legitimate rights and made-up rights. If we don’t, it will only become harder and harder to convince them of the merits of our arguments.
After all, would you listen to someone who seems bent on taking away your rights? When society becomes all about the things various special interest groups get as “rights,” you’d probably want to make sure you secured your own rights, as well.