Know Your Rights

'Know your rights.'

What American hasn't heard that imperative, repeated ad nauseam by government agencies and ambulance-chasing lawyers, both professing to protect individual citizens from evil businessmen?

On the other hand, what American knows what his rights really are? According to the federal and state governments, Americans have the right to food, clothing, health care, education, housing, telephone service, and even Internet access! Who can keep up with all of the new 'rights' our elected officials invent for us every year?

Let's consider what a right really is. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, a right is 'something to which one has a just claim.' Thomas Jefferson famously delineated man's 'inalienable Rights' as 'Life, Liberty , and the pursuit of Happiness.' Jefferson 's formulation seems about right, for the 'inalienable Rights' he listed also have the unique quality that they can be enjoyed by all simultaneously. That is, for me to exercise my right to life, no one else is required to die, although it is possible that someone might willingly give up his life to save mine. For me to be free, no one else must be in bondage. For me to engage in the pursuit of happiness, which might best be understood as making use of my person and property in such a way as to maximize my possibility of happiness (and which understanding seems appropriate given that Jefferson's enumeration of rights was based on that of John Locke, who wrote 'property' rather than 'the pursuit of Happiness'), no one else must forgo his own pursuit of happiness. In short, a right is something to which everyone has a just claim which he may exercise without denying the same just claim to others.

Whence are these rights derived? According to Jefferson , men 'are endowed by their Creator' with these rights. Indeed, the Bible explicitly upholds the rights to life and property, as expressed most succinctly in the Ten Commandments: 'You shall not murder' (Exodus 20:13 , NIV) and 'You shall not steal' (Exodus 20:15 ). While there are no specific verses stating an unambiguous right to liberty'and none is really to be expected'the implication is clear in the laws that do exist: As long as one's use of his life, liberty, and property does not infringe upon someone else's rights to the same, no temporal punishment is attached to the use of those rights. Once one crosses the line and does harm to someone else's life, liberty, or property, then restitution must be made, up to and including the forfeiture of one's life if one has deliberately taken another's. (See Leviticus 24:17-21.)

If, then, the essential, inalienable rights are life, liberty, and property, what shall we make of the other 'rights' that the government has magically legislated for us?

The United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, declares (among many other things) that '[e]veryone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control' (Article 26, section 1).

Without doubt these are fine sentiments to which to subscribe. Who, after all, would wish for anyone to be without food, clothing, housing, medical care, or income?

There is, however, one teensy-weensy little problem with declaring such noble ideals 'rights.' The problem is that for someone to have the right to, say, food, someone else's right to liberty or property must therefore be violated. After all, food doesn't just appear on the table of its own accord. In order to obtain food, one must either grow it or buy it. If, on the other hand, one has a right to food, then someone else will have to be forced either to grow it, thereby violating that person's right to liberty, or to buy it, thereby violating his right to property. Thus, cold-hearted as it may sound to the average American citizen or U.N. bureaucrat, there simply cannot be a right to food; and the same goes for the so-called rights to clothing, housing, health care, education, and so on.

Does this imply that those who truly cannot provide these things for themselves ought therefore to be left to die or, at best, live in squalor? Certainly not! The means for providing for those who cannot provide for themselves, on the other hand, must of necessity be voluntary, not coerced, for this is the only way to help the less fortunate without at the same time trampling on the rights of the fortunate.

It is for this very reason that private charities are formed and proliferate in free societies. When citizens of those societies recognize that it is up to them to help those in need rather than expecting the government (i.e., fellow taxpayers) to do so, they very generously give of their time and money to worthy causes. An additional benefit of a free society is that it is vastly more prosperous than a centrally planned one, meaning that its citizens have far more leisure time and disposable income to devote to helping their fellow man. Compare the number and size of charities that existed in the U.S.S.R. during its entire miserable existence to those that existed in the U.S. during that same time period, and it's no contest.

Churches, too, are charged with taking care of 'the least of these' (Matthew 25:32-46). At the same time, however, the apostle Paul makes it clear that there are limits to Christian charity: 'If a man will not work, he shall not eat' (II Thessalonians 3:10 ). Paul was not saying that those who cannot work should be cut off from charity but that those who will not work should be. Widows, orphans, and other unfortunates are specifically recognized as deserving of Christian charity (James 1:27 ); but even then, says Paul, their families ought to be first in line to take care of them (I Timothy 5:1-5), followed by the church.

One advantage that churches and charities, as opposed to government agencies, possess is the ability to determine who really needs help, and for how long, and who is just looking for a free ride. Thus, churches and charities are able to assist both the needy, by providing for their needs and helping them to get back on their feet, and the freeloaders, by showing them the door and forcing them to provide for themselves. No government program can ever do this because the government isn't spending freely donated money and thus cares nothing about the results of its handouts. In fact, it can be argued that the federal government's 'War on Poverty' has done harm first by turning so many Americans into (legalized) thieves and second by creating indifference in the hearts of so many other Americans to the plight of their neighbors since, after all, 'the government will take care of them.' Even churches these days have taken to referring people in need to government agencies rather than assisting them from within.

Thomas Jefferson had it right: The only inalienable rights are those to life, liberty, and property. All other supposed rights are not rights at all but privileges bestowed upon some at the expense of others. Furthermore, attempting to enforce these fabricated rights destroys the bonds of brotherhood between men by making the beneficiaries of the privileges into slave drivers and thieves, destroying the effectiveness of charities and churches, and engendering indifference or even resentment in the hearts of those whose God-given rights are being violated in the name of charity.

It is unfortunate that Jefferson did not follow his own inclinations through to their ultimate conclusion, namely, that government, rather than securing the rights of man, does its level best to destroy them completely and to set one citizen against another, thereby tightening its own grip on all. How much better off all Americans, both rich and poor, would be today had the Sage of Monticello fought not for a supposedly limited government, bound by the ephemeral 'chains of the Constitution,' but for a truly and completely free'that is to say, anarchic'America!

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Michael Tennant's picture
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Michael Tennant is a software developer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.