Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Rights vs. Privilege

At the Liberty Summer Seminar this past weekend, Karen Selick gave an excellent speech titled "Canada's Human Rights Codes -- Ugh." In it, she stressed that many of the things that are being demanded by various groups as rights are in fact privileges, the cost of which are borne by others.

Karen's right. She made the point that true rights simply exist by no-one doing anything. Privilege, on the other hand, requires action by someone, usually someone else. If someone demands a 'right' to housing, for example, it usually means that they want the government to provide a home for them. That means that you and I pay for it via taxation. That is a privilege, not a right.

I wrote one of my 'Dear Zachary' letters to my son, several years ago, and tried to distinguish for him the difference between rights and privileges in a larger context. I will copy the pertinent parts here:

People are beginning to confuse rights with privileges

How so?

Let’s talk about this trend in the context of the American Constitution. The right to life simply means that no-one else has the right to kill you. It doesn’t mean that everyone else has to support you, entertain you, educate your children, and give you a place to live. You have the guaranteed right to life and the security of your person until or unless you do something to threaten someone else’s similar rights. To the extent that anyone does receive any sort of benefit, the cost of which exceeds his own tax contributions, it is privilege, born at the cost of other individuals.

The right to liberty simply means that no-one has the right to detain you, to force you to do things you don’t wish to do, to keep you from doing things you want to do, or to restrain you from speaking freely or assembling with others. It doesn’t mean that you can escape responsibility or consequence if you have caused harm to others. To the extent that justice is not exercised against violators of the rights of others, it is a privilege to the offenders, the cost of which is continued criminal behaviour due to the willingness of the law-abiding to forego reasonable punishment of criminals for whatever reason.

The right to pursue happiness is your guarantee that no-one can reasonably interfere with you as you go about your life unless, and this is very important, your actions interfere with the similar rights of others. To the extent that we all endure daily disruptions and inconveniences, we are extending privileges to the violators because we prefer to err on the side of granting too much freedom, rather than not enough, even if it encroaches somewhat on our own.
These rights all make sense. Libertarians call them Natural Rights. They simply exist because they are natural extensions of life itself. These rights would exist even if they weren’t enshrined in the Constitution of the United States or anywhere else. To the extent that these natural rights are interfered with anywhere, by anyone, they are violations against the individual.

Violations against the individual abound, world-wide. That is no surprise. Many cultures and, more recently, political ideologies, place little value on individuals. Collective ‘group-think’ is pervasive. Individuals are expendable and are often seen to be little more than convenient sacrifices on the altar of collectivism and any of many tyrannical political systems. What is alarming is that the United States, the last, great hope for individualism and individual rights is falling into the same ideological quagmire. The federal government is ever more intrusive into the personal lives of the populace, thanks in large part to the efforts of the political right. It interferes increasingly in business and commerce because of the political left.

What made me think of this today was a comment by Lady~g on my last post in which she questioned how libertarianism might be considered from a Christian point of view. I believe that anyone who wants the freedom to do as they wish, go where they wish, and worship as they wish, all within the caveats spelled out above, has no real political choice but libertarianism. A brief article, "Religion, Culture and Law," by Tibor Machan is a worthwhile read in this context.

And... my American friends: Work for, promote and vote for congressman Ron Paul for president in 2008. He's the man! He is running as as a Republican, but he is libertarian to the core. He presents the only real hope, from anywhere in the American political spectrum, for the economic and principled survival of the United States.

In my humble opinion, anyway.


  1. Thank you for this absolutely superb post!
    It's as if you read the part of my mind that deals with political affairs, broke it down into simpler terms, and put it on a billboard for travelers who pass this way to see.
    We are at a time of moral crisis in not only American, but human history: Two philosophies are vying for the votes of everyone on earth, whether they know it or not.
    If they have the courage to choose individual liberty (which entails individual responsibility) the whole race will continue to advance and prosper as never before. If we choose the failed, FOOL-osophies of the past; coercive altruism under the oppressive "grace" of spiritualism and atheism in high places, then we will not have only built a bridge back to the dark ages, but added to its dungeons the gulag and the ghetto.
    God grant us the enlightenment to choose wisely!

  2. Most excellent post! Too bad more American's don't read this.

  3. Thank you, both. I have loved America and Americans as long as I can remember and I am deeply saddened at the direction things are taking there. It would be a wonderful thing indeed if the United States would again become the bastion of liberty that it once was.