The Nature of Rights

I had a client, who worked in the medical services field, once ask me if I thought everyone should have a right to health care.  I thought about the question for a minute, and then answered “healthcare might be a desire, it might even be a need, but it is certainly not a right.”  She was taken aback by my candor and thought that I was a heartless individual.  I was unable to convince her that “rights” had a distinct meaning – one that shouldn’t be belittled as a mere platitude.

We see the term, “rights” being used to describe anything an individual might desire, regardless of the effect that desire might have on others.  Rights are all too often viewed as mere entitlements that should be offered just because an individual desires something.  The word is becoming particularly clichéd in the political arena, in which politicians and their constituencies may argue individuals have a “right” to food, free healthcare, free birth control, or any other thing they may desire.

The promiscuous use of the term, “rights,” to describe wants, or even needs, trivializes the true nature and importance of rights to the point at which true rights are undervalued, and may even entirely disappear.  Before carelessly tossing around the term, people should really understand the characteristics and significance of rights.

Rights are actions that a person may undertake in a free society.  They are not granted by governmental entities – they exist solely because a person exists.  No overseeing authority grants rights.  They exist because of the free will granted to all by our Creator.  In a society dedicated to liberty, rights are inviolate, and can not be restricted or restrained by the coercive power of the state.  A tyrannical state is one that restricts rights of individuals by the threat of governmentally sanctioned force.  The more rights are restricted, the more tyrannical the society becomes.

Rights are inherent to each individual and are virtually limitless.  Although specific rights are codified in various national constitutions and international agreements, these codified rights are not to be viewed as limitations on rights.  The only limitation on rights in a free society is that those rights not infringe upon the rights of others.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this concept is to provide a few examples.  In the United States of America, the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press.  This means that anyone may compose and disseminate their ideas.  However, freedom of the press does not mean everyone has a right to a printing press provided by the government.  Providing everyone with a free printing press would require that the government take the property and labor of one (the person building the printing press) in order to satisfy the desire of another (the person wishing to distribute their ideas).  Taking the property or labor of any individual, through any other means than a voluntary transaction, is a violation of that person’s rights.

Another example is freedom of speech.  We all have a right to express our opinions.   However, this right does not allow us to force anyone to listen to our opinions.  That would be a violation of the other person’s right to freely engage in the actions he or she desires.

A third example would be the right to bear arms.  In a free society, everyone has the right to obtain and use firearms.  However, no one is under the obligation to provide the citizenry with firearms.  This right can only be exercised through a fair and voluntary transaction between the purchaser and purveyor of such weapons.

The right to bear arms also does not guarantee that anyone can use weapons in any way they desire.  For example, the right to bear a firearm does not grant an individual the right to fire that weapon at another, since the victim would obviously have his or her right to life violated by this action.

In essence, rights are the God-given abilities to take whatever actions an individual chooses, provided that those actions do not infringe upon another individual’s ability to do the same.

As illustrated above, rights are not merely desires, wants, or even needs.  They are fundamental actions an individual may take, on their own accord, and through the use of their own resources and labor.  They are not actions that infringe upon another individual’s ability to take the actions dictated by their own specific consciences.

We are hearing a lot of talk about “rights” that are anything but.  For example, many in society are touting the “right to healthcare.”  While anyone has the right to seek healthcare, no one has the “right” to receive healthcare.  If we grant individuals the “right” to healthcare, we are, by definition, denying rights to those who may provide healthcare services or be forced to fund the healthcare services of others.  Healthcare, like any other endeavor, should only be provided through a voluntary and free agreement between the consumer and the healthcare provider.  Once we start, incorrectly, identifying the receipt of healthcare as a right, we are limiting the ability of healthcare providers to freely undertake the actions they desire.

A bunch of other things are being touted as “rights” by politicians, the media, and segments of the population.  Birth control, reproductive services, food, shelter, education, and a whole host of other things are being held up as “rights.”  While no government edict should be instituted to prohibit people from seeking these things, any attempt at using the coercive power of government to ensure the receipt of these things is an affront to liberty.  People have the right to seek out any good or service they may desire, they have the right to their thoughts and consciences, and they have the right to worship in any way they please.  They do not have the right to compel others to provide these things to them, nor do they have the right to use their “rights” to infringe upon the rights of others.

Governments may institute laws to protect rights, but these protections should be limited to preventing individuals and entities from infringing upon the rights of others.  Governments should not be in the business of granting or providing rights.  Rights are granted, not by governments, but by God.  But the ultimate responsibility for exercising those rights is borne solely by each individual.  If “rights” must be provided by another individual or entity (such as a government), they are not rights.  In fact, they are the direct opposite of rights, since they involve the coercion of one group of individuals in order to satisfy the desires of another group of individuals.  Rights are granted to individuals alone, and may only be exercised by those same individuals.  Any other use of the term, “rights,” perverts the true significance of this cornerstone of liberty.