On civil rights vs public goods
Lately I've run across many characterizations of 'rights' as inclusive of food, water, shelter, health care, education, etc. For example, see this Declaration of Occupation. I have a problem with that characterization. The original distinction of 'rights', as found in the Bill of Rights, is that of 'inalienable' rights which are innate to our nature. This is a crucial concept: we are born with the right to speech, assembly, worship, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, etc. These are not rights that are granted to us by the government. They are qualities of being human which we can only lose by some action of the government*. We are protected against tyrants who would deprive us of them by decree through our right to due process (making it one of the most important of all the rights, along with the Second Amendment).
The key thing about our inalienable rights as citizens is that no person needs to labor to provide them to us. Rather, it takes labor to deprive us of them. The right to free speech doesn't mean the government will buy me a bullhorn so that I can maximally exercise it. The right to freedom of religion doesn't mean the government will pay for my religious education or build me a church. The right to freedom from unreasonable searches doesn't mean the government will build me a house so that I can have privacy from public view.
I do believe that universal access to food, water, shelter, health care and education is in the highest public good. I would even go so far as to claim that these are all important (in varying degrees) to our national security interests. And I recognize most importantly that they all require someone to labor in order to provide them. Who is it that will labor to provide us these things? If all 312+ million citizens get sick at once, who will provide the health care for us?
While that is a rhetorical question, it helps to expose one of the problems with calling things like food and shelter "rights". Assuming we enshrined them as such, we could some day reach a point where we fail to provide them, and then have to admit that the government isn't able to live up to its promises. There is the danger then that the government will also say "and by the way, we also can't live up to our promises of free speech, due process etc.")
So I believe that there's a legitimate self-interest for each of us to preserve the distinction between our "inalienable rights" and our "greatest public goods" in these conversations and declarations we make.
* We can also lose some of our rights as a result of the activities of other private citizens, which is a major reason why we need government at all (as much as it pains the anarchist in me to admit).
November 21, 2011