Rights, Again.

Former co-worker Mr. Bill, the Obama supporter who, after the fact, rejected liberalism, sent me an email today:

Sorry to bother, but have been running a few thoughts through my brain recently and wanted to run them by you. I have been thinking about ‘rights’ and what they really are. Given you are probably the most versed in such subjects of all those I know, I thought you might be willing to discuss your thoughts with me.

To begin with, what is a right? Miriam-Webster defines a right as something a person can make a just claim to. So… what can we make a just claim to? I first started looking at this from an American standpoint, but realized I had to move past that. As American’s are rights are only as good as they are recognized by others… which means the list gets really short of what actually are rights. Given that we as a human must have just claim to them, that would imply that all others would agree to that claim. Which means a right is subject to the crowd by which the claim is made. Which means, at least in my mind, that as the crowd increases the likeliness that they will all agree to your claim is less likely.

Moving past the abstract version of a right, I turned to American Rights. Obviously we have the constitution and the Bill of Rights that clearly defines our rights. However, I would argue that, as it was the government that gave us these ‘rights’ that they could then take them away at will. That for an American to truly have a right to something, even in America, that he/she must have the just claim that his/her fellow Americans agree and support. I could claim I have a right to all the fresh water in the country, but I doubt that many would agree with me… thus I don’t have a right to the water. However, let’s look at what is defined… I have the right to bare arms. For the most part, my fellow Americans would agree I have the right, but yet there would be those that disagree. Some of those people might even own a business and refuse my right to bear my arms in their establishment. With mere ownership and difference of opinion, they have stripped me of my right. So if the right can be taken away, then how is it really a right so much as just a privilege granted to me by those that would agree with me?

I know you have addressed these issues to great extent on your blog, but I am not sure you covered this outlook. If in fact the ‘rights’ we are granted by the constitution and the bill of rights are not really rights, but rather privileges… then what expectation can an American have of those privileges simply being taken away at the whim of anyone (or even the government that first granted them) taking them away? And, what recourse would one have against those that resend such privileges? If I grant you the privilege of drinking alcohol in my house, but then change my mind and want you to stop… as it is my house, don’t I get to make that decision?

Your thoughts?

Here’s my response:

Bill:
Actually, the multiple essays on the sidebar under “The ‘Rights’ Discussion” are all about precisely what you’re asking. I strongly suggest that you sit down and read them in detail. The point of the original “What is a ‘Right’?” essay was that your “Rights” aren’t enforceable if your culture does not support them. If you want to keep your rights, you must fight for them and keep them active in the hearts and minds of your fellow citizens.
The six-part exchange I had with mathematics professor Dr. Danny Cline explored the concept of the “realness” of rights, but my slant on it was that the concept of rights isn’t a stand-alone thing. I concurred with Ayn Rand that what the concept of “Rights” does is codify ones freedom of action within a society. From a practical standpoint, your rights define what you can do (or others can do to you) without fear of sanction. I don’t know if you read last night’s post on our withering Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search, but that’s an example of what you’re talking about.
I am in agreement with Rand on another point – there really is only one, fundamental right: the right to ones own life. All other “real” rights are corollaries to that single right, but how broad those rights are and how well they are protected is fundamentally dependent on the culture in which one lives. Ours is the first (and to my knowledge still the only) culture founded on the concept that the purpose of government is the protection of the rights of individuals, and that failure to live up to that responsibility is grounds to replace that government. Prior to (and to be honest, subsequent to also) the founding of the United States, the purpose of government has always been understood to be maintenance of the power structure that formed said government, and to hell with the rights of the people. The idea that the rights of the individual are the single most important factor in a culture is – truly – revolutionary.
As to your example of a business owner restricting your right to bear arms in his establishment, that’s simply a conflict of rights – his property rights versus your right to self-protection. It’s an interesting conflict, since he (apparently) doesn’t also accept simultaneous responsibility for your protection when he denies you the possession of the tools you’ve chosen for that duty, but you have the choice not to give him your business, or even go into competition against him. Your right has not actually been taken, but it has been limited. No one has ever said that rights are unlimited – “Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.” What our Bill of Rights was supposed to do was place significant limits on what limitations government could put on our rights, because government is a monopoly – we cannot choose another government or start up one of our own without getting rid of the one under which we currently live. Unfortunately, people are people, and as the various courts have proven over time, we’re more than willing to “constitutionalize our personal preferences” when it suits us. This is why, IMHO, education is the battleground it is – if the populace is ignorant, it’s much easier to lead them around by the nose – ergo, the best place to undermine a culture is the schools, followed by the media.
Hope this helps.

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