We hear it almost every day. Healthcare is a right. Access to food is a right. Access to water, shelter, and clothing are all rights. What’s wrong with these assertions is not only that they are false, but also that they create justification for slave labor. That probably sounds dramatic to many people, and frankly, maybe it is, but I’ll take you step by step through why it is wrong for healthcare, food, water, shelter, clothing, and any other item/service to be deemed a “right.” This argument is chiefly about language and philosophy, but the practical significance should not be overlooked; it matters… a lot.
First what I’ll do is give you my definition for what constitutes “rights” and what exactly you have “rights” to. This is not some obscure libertarian craziness definition. In most cases, if I were to give this exact definition, there would be very little objection. However, the application of this definition and what it entails is often taken for granted, or not considered at all. The qualification of the word that I think is most proper and avoids setting a precedent of demanding “rights” where actually one party is truly just aggressing against another for their own benefit is this:
“Rights” are restricted to the liberty of any individual to control their life, their property, and their pursuit of happiness. You may swing your fist any place you want until you get to the edge of my nose. Rights cannot require the participation of any other party. They only guarantee that in a social context a person can do with their life and property (fruits of their labor) whatever they wish so long as they do not infringe upon another’s liberty to do the same. Put simply: “Your Rights (noun) – your life, your liberty, your property.” Rights must be inalienable. Let me expand upon each of these just a bit so there is no confusion.
Life: No one can kill you.
Liberty: No one can force you to do anything without your consent. Nor can they stop you from doing anything permitted you are not infringing on any other person’s rights.
Property: No one can steal from you. Be it your money, your items, your labor, or the fruits of it.
That’s it. Those are your rights. And if anyone breaches those rights, then it is perfectly justified for that person to be reprimanded (remember this, it’ll come back in a minute). Look back at the opening assertions… none of those things are listed here. Why? It is because each and every one of those things requires the active participation of other people and the fruits of their labor.
Let’s think for a moment that the list of items/services (henceforth referred to “necessities”) were officially made “rights.” What would the implication of that be? It would mean that every person would have lawfully protected access to each of these necessities, free-of-charge. They would be guaranteed from birth. Sounds like a paradise, right? So, what’s the problem? How could I oppose such a world? I oppose it because it is a simplistic, Utopian view that neglects to account for the production or provision of these necessities.
Who provides healthcare? Doctors, nurses, etc. Food? Farmers, etc. Water? (unless you want to take your bucket to a lake) the countless people involved in making the necessary plumbing (and everything else). Shelter? Construction workers, etc. Clothes? Seamstresses, tailors, factory workers, etc. Do these people not have the right to do with the fruits of their labor as they see fit? The only way to obtain these items/services from their owners is to strike a voluntary contract, or else you are violating their rights. And since rights are inalienable, no one can stand in the way of you and your rights. If any of these people require you to provide them with compensation (likely money) for the work they have done, then they would be an impediment to you obtaining what is rightfully yours. Remember that if someone is infringing upon another’s rights, then that is an injustice which constitutes action (violence/aggression/force) to rectify. So, in a world where physical items or services are made rights, those who provide those necessities would become slaves, being that they would have their labor stolen from them. We’d be in quite the rights-based dilemma (not to mention a productivity dilemma).
At this point, I’m guessing you’re either agreeing with me or asking a question like, “John, why don’t we just change the definition of what a right is?” I would oppose that as well because, for me, this debate is at its core about language. Words are meant to communicate clear and concise ideas, and if we start muddying up our language to fit our objectives, our thoughts are hindered and our social interactions can then be manipulated by the same parties who manipulated the language in the first place. We see this in political speak all the time, and more importantly in the messy language of our legislation which is frequently and flagrantly manipulated to benefit the crafters at the expense of the rest of us.
Now, the proposal that we should provide these necessities for those less fortunate than us is noble, righteous, and probably a wholeheartedly good thing, but it is separate from “rights.” But what is the moral way to go about achieving that? Is it to steal the fruits of others labor? Or might it be out of our own voluntary kindness? I would argue that we not only have the capacity to provide these necessities in a voluntary fashion, but we also have the desire.
Nevertheless, I believe in no uncertain terms that the ends do not justify the means. Creating slaves out of some to help others is a practice that has occurred throughout all of human history; it’s time we put a stop to it… in all its forms.
As always, my bias is liberty and I do not pretend to have all of the answers. Also, as the implications of this subject affect literally everything, it is needless to say that I hardly scratched the surface. So, if you’re left with questions, disagreements, or what have you, please leave a comment or contact me.
In love and liberty, John Osterhoudt