Sunday, September 1, 2019


Week 52: Rights

As individuals, we are limited in terms of what we can accomplish in pursuit of our own goals. No one can acquire, let alone perfect, the requisite knowledge and skills to lead a full life. Therefore, we form implicit and explicit social contracts, so that each member of the social group may collaborate with others in the group. Through such collaboration, each individual’s goals may be advanced, and the advancement of those goals advances the objectives of society.

The first and most fundamental social contract is the family. Husbands and wives join together to fulfill the need for companionship, love and to share the burdens of life. Those are goals at the individual level. Because this union often involves procreation, a couple that has children also fulfills a societal objective, which is the perpetuation of the species.


Millennia upon millennia, individuals and families have collaborated with others to form societies. Working together, individuals hope to advance their own goals and objectives in an easier and better way than they could alone. As Adam Smith discusses, this ultimately promotes the well being of the society at large.


As these collaborations become larger and more complex, it becomes necessary to formalize the social contract. This is often accomplished through the formation of governments. In part 1 of Book II of “The Spirit of Laws,” Montesquieu observes, “There are three species of government: republican, monarchical, and despotic. In  order to discover their nature, it is sufficient to recollect the common notion, which supposes three definitions, or rather three facts: that a republican government is that in which the body, or only a part of the people, is possessed of the supreme power; monarchy, that in which a single person governs by fixed and established laws; a despotic government, that in which a single person directs everything by his own will and caprice.”


The American colonists chose to part ways with the government of King George, which was a sort of amalgam between monarchy and despotism. For British subjects living in the mother country, there were fixed and established laws by which the people could more-or-less predictably interact with the government. In the colonies, the rule of laws was less predictable, leading the colonists to see the relationship between the government and the people to be more akin to despotism. While the colonists initially wanted security in their social contract by means of the British monarchy, it became more and more evident that this would not be possible. Abandoning both monarchy and despotism, the Founders drew on the lessons of antiquity and those of the Enlightenment to form a republican form of government as the new mechanism for defining and executing the American social contract.


The rest is history, so to speak. Through local, state and national elections, resulting in a mixture of direct, popular vote and votes by the Electoral College, politicians are elected to represent us, “We the People.” Conceived in the notion that government should preserve, protect and defend individuals’ rights and the pursuits of their objectives, the first representatives developed a social contract in the form of The Constitution of the United States of America. Representatives today should be a voice for the people they represent.


Unfortunately, the notion of representing what the people want (or don’t want) in order to pursue their goals and objectives has been supplanted with what the politician thinks the people should or should not have. Granted, we the citizens share blame. I would venture to say it is a small minority of people who commit the time to call, write, email, Tweet, participate in townhalls, or otherwise engage with their representatives, let alone take the time to actually participate in the voting process. Politicians are people, and like all people, they are not mind readers. In absence of our loud and clear voices, politicians will pursue goals and objectives that are based on other inputs, such as special interest groups, as opposed to input from their constituents. It then becomes a guessing game in which the politician searches for any expedient to ensure reelection and to remain in office.


Once a politician’s focus turns from representing the people’s interests to representing their own, we depart from republicanism, skip over monarchy, and land squarely in a despotic form of government. Instead of one despot, though, we have many.


Perhaps the most insidious tool these would-be despots possess is that of claiming something to be a right and in convincing the citizens that they are being denied that right. After all, if it is a right, how dare a politician or government deny it to me?

In this election year, as in every election year, we will hear about the “rights” that politicians claim citizens (and non-citizens) have. What is lacking in their rhetoric is intellectual honesty, specifically in respect to what a right is.

For example, candidates may “fight for” a right to healthcare, a right to secure borders, a right to an abortion, a right to life, a right to a living wage. Sadly, they do not fight for the right to party. Thankfully, Quiet Riot has that covered. Notwithstanding the heroic efforts of such 80’s hair bands, the list of purported political rights for which candidates fight goes on and on. In subsequent posts, I will address these specific topics. In the meantime, and to set the stage for those discussions, I believe it is essential to understand the term “rights,” as some of these may or may not be rights.

Take any of the examples described above. Let’s choose healthcare. Is it desirable that each member of society have access to healthcare services? It may be. But is it a right? Or, is it a benefit that each citizen enjoys as a result of being part of a society that has determined it to be advisable and favorable to provide? Let us explore these questions.

What is a right?

In the context we are discussing, Merriam Webster defines a right as “something to which one has a just claim.” We sometimes hear people, especially those in the political realm, refer to fundamental human rights or natural rights. Such rights are those inherent in our personhood. They are not bestowed upon us or granted to us by government or by anyone else. They are conditions we have a just claim to because they are ours and do not come from anyone else. As Cicero observes in On the Republic, this type of “true law is correct reason congruent with nature, spread among all persons, constant, everlasting,” meaning that natural law, from which natural and human rights derive, is the same for all people and is free from the interpretation of others, including governments.

As a human being, I have a just claim to my thoughts and opinions. I have a just claim the fruits of my own labor. I have a just claim to be secure in my own life. In these things, I am not dependent upon others. Do I, however, have a just claim to the thoughts and opinions, the fruits of labor, and the security of others? In short, do I have a just claim to the personhood of another? I would suggest the answer is a clear and unequivocal no.

To return to the example of healthcare. I am neither physician nor nurse. I do not have the knowledge and skills to heal myself. This is something that is not inherent in my personhood. In order to obtain medical care, I must rely on others. Reliance, though, is not the same thing as a just claim. To say that I have a just claim to the labor of the physician or the nurse requires subjugation of the physician or nurse to serve my needs, and subjugation is always predicated on the threat of force and violence. I would argue, as Locke does in Two Treatises on Government, that when a form of government fails to protect a citizen’s life, liberty and property (i.e., a person’s fundamental natural and human rights), that government should be replaced. When a government resorts to the use of force to impose duties upon its people that subjugate one to another, I would suggest that that government is no longer a protector of the rights of the people.

All this is not to say that universal access to healthcare is a good or bad thing. It is only to say that it is not a right, because one person does not have inherency to use force or the threat of force (either personally or through the instrument of government) to take the fruits of another’s labor.

Indeed, societies may decide through their respective forms of government that access to healthcare is a desirable thing for all of their citizens and may pass laws to that effect. This, however, is not a right but is a benefit bestowed on an individual by being part of a society and being subject to its social contract, its laws and its mores. It is not a right, because access is guaranteed by the government, not by one’s own personhood. It becomes an agreement in which once citizen has a claim to the labor of another, in this example to that of the physician or nurse, and in which that party (e.g., the physician or nurse) cannot withhold such labor under penalty of law, which is to say force.

For the acquisition of anything that is not inherent in personhood, including access to healthcare, to be virtuous, the arrangement must be voluntary. Both parties (e.g., the healthcare provider and the patient) must agree to the services to be provide and for what recompense or requital. When the acquisition of something that is not inherent in personhood is obtained without the voluntary consent of both parties, the use or threat of force compels one party to the service of another. To put it bluntly, an involuntary arrangement exists that enslaves one person to another. Instead of the whips and rape and killing fields of a century-and-a-half ago, modern servitude is enforced through the threat of fines, imprisonment and armed federal officials.

This is the real danger in leading people to believe that something is a right, when it is actually a benefit, fore how can the government legitimately deny to the people their rights?

As the year goes on and as the debates go on and on and on, listen closely to candidates for all offices. Listen for what they maintain to be your rights, and question whether it, whatever “it” may be, is something inherent in your personhood or is something that requires the government to take the time, treasure or talents of one person to give to another. Is that taking and giving predicated on the voluntary agreement of the involved parties, or is it arranged by our government under the threat of force? Is “it” a right, a voluntary exchange, or an act of servitude?

If the candidate’s proposal involves an actual right, listen for how he or she will protect its free exercise from interference by others, including government. If the candidate’s proposal involves a benefit to be conferred upon the citizenry, listen for the mechanism by which he or she will procure that benefit. If they employ means that do not require voluntary commitment from all involved, know that they are comfortable with servitude and are willing to subjugate one person to another. It is through such involuntary arrangements that our representative form of government is cast aside and that despotism exists.

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