Friday, August 28, 2009

You Have a Right to – Nothing

There is something conspicuously – and wisely – missing from the Bill of Rights in our constitution. It does guarantee many rights. We have a right to be free from government interference in our speech, our religion, our press. Government may not deny our right to keep and bear arms nor may it quarter soldiers in our homes except under extraordinary conditions. Government may not require excessive bail nor impose excessive punishment. However there is one kind of right nowhere to be found in the constitution. That is the right to have anything given to us.

The constitution contains no right to a “living wage” or even to any food. While government may not take our life, liberty or property without due process, we are not guaranteed life, liberty or property at taxpayer expense. If a person acts carelessly and dies, or even dies because of disease, the constitution provides no remedy. If someone binds himself to debt to the point that he loses much of his liberty, the taxpayers have no obligation to bail him out. If he carelessly loses his property or just fails to acquire any, the constitution does not require anybody to correct his lack.

In fact the Bill of Rights gives us a right to nothing – though that nothing is very important. There are areas where government should do nothing and is constitutionally mandated to do nothing. WE have no restriction on speech but also no guarantee anybody will listen to what we say. We have no restriction on the press but also no guarantee we will have the money to print what we think everybody should read. No restriction on the right to bear arms (except for felons) but also no guarantee that we will have the money to purchase those arms. Nobody has any constitutional right to anything beyond the fruits of his own labor.

Constitutional freedoms might be called negative freedoms. They are things that may not be done to us. There is nothing there to force any private citizen to do anything for any other citizen. Nor if there anything to force the government to do anything for any citizen.

There is a great difference between the constitutional rights of freedom from certain government actions and what some today are pushing as right to have something. For example many of our politicians are claiming that health care is a right. That would be a right to have something whether you've earned it or not. Those politicians fail to mention two important facts:

1. Any such right can only exist if somebody else is obligated to provide it. We cannot have a right to health care without imposing the obligation on someone to pay for it. Giving someone such a “right” hands over to that person the fruits of other people's labor.
2. We do not have unlimited resources. Those who multiply “rights” to health care, decent housing, adequate nutrition etc. seem to assume that there is some source of food, housing, medical care etc. which must only be directed to those in need. That is a nice theory but it cannot withstand the trial of empiricism and facts. In fact, giving people what they want regardless of their labor encourages them to avoid that labor, thus reducing the resources that would otherwise be available.

Nobody has any constitutional right to the fruits of another person's labor.

I am old enough to remember the 60's when the phrase “the world owes me a living” became popular among some young people. Prior to that time nearly everybody, at least in the U.S., understood that work was required to produce the necessities and niceties of life. Work is still necessary. Someone has to produce and transport the food and clothing we need, build our housing, undergo the arduous regime of medical school etc. The “world owes me a living” attitude cannot change that. At best it will take from the worker and give to those who do not work. More likely it will discourage work and reduce the resources available to everybody. When those resources are all allocated, someone will go without as happened in the USSR.

The world does not owe anybody a living. At most it owes us opportunity to scramble for that living ourselves. There is an immense difference between a right to speak without government interference and a right to the fruits of someone else's labor. That is why our founders were wise when they included in the constitution many rights of freedom from government control, but no “rights” to have anything someone else would have to produce.

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1 comment:

Bobkatt said...

I too remember the sixties but I don't recall that saying being bandied about but I'll take your word for it. The big difference is that you didn't hear it from adults that's for sure.
When discussing this issue with others I often have to remind them that something as basic as clean water requires hundreds of people laboring to obtain, purify and delive it to your faucet. We have leaders claiming that health care is a "right", the U.N. claiming that clean water is "right", etc.
The fact is that if you want to redistribute wealth you must first acquire that wealth.