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Freedom's Phoenix

Rights and Privileges

August 27, 2009 - 9:04am
Nick Coons by Nick Coons


Last week I published an article titled Health Care is Not a Right. From that article I received several constructive responses which opposed that view. Given the good-natured attitude of the responses, I'd like to mention some of those points and clarify, starting with the distinction between a right and a privilege.

Claim: "A right is whatever a society or government decides is a right."

This is an important distinction, because it illustrates the difference between a "right" and a "privilege."  Rights are moral sanctions on an individual's actions, not something society or government institutes.  Society can (and should) only institute the recognition of a right.

Individuals have the right to life; that is universally accepted.  This right does not come from society or government, but from our nature.  For instance, if you were surrounded by 50 men with guns and were in imminent danger of being shot with no hope of survival, you still have a right -- a moral sanction -- to live your life, even though the ability to do so may have ceased.  A right is an absolute, a concept that determines what actions are proper to the survival of an individual.  A proper government protects rights without infringing upon them, and it does so by instituting laws consistent with that principle.  If government fails in this task, it is not redefining a "right", but failing in its obligations.

Claim: "Person A's right to bear arms does not supersede person B's right to not be shot."

In the previous article, I stated that a right cannot impose an obligation on anyone else, except that of a negative kind, to refrain from violating the rights of another.  This differs from a positive obligation, such as to have one's right violated to provide for the so-called "rights" of another.  This is why the right to bear arms can be a right without conflicting with another individual's right to not be shot, but health care cannot be a right because it violates the rights of another to their freedom or to the justly-acquired property.  This doesn't mean that health care cannot be a government-instituted privilege, whereby government steals from some individuals to provide services to others.  This differs significantly from the concept of a "right."

It is also accepted that freedom is a right; that we don't enslave others.  "Freedom" means the freedom from coercion, to live your life as you see fit, so long as (the "negative obligation") you do not infringe on the same rights of others.  To steal someone's property is to enslave them for the amount of time used in earning the property.  To steal $50 from someone making $10/hour is to akin to enslaving him for five hours.  This is the sort of obligation that we impose on others when we try to call health care a "right" (either by making a doctor perform against his will, or stealing from our neighbors to pay the doctor), and why it cannot be.  Slavery does not become morally acceptable simply because we enslave people for only a portion of their lives.

Related Content:

Have We Learned Nothing? - Kimberly Ruff
Health Care Debate Rages On - Richard Sutton
The Violence of the Health Care Bill - Nick Coons

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