The Politics of “Rights”

In the coming election year we are going to be bombarded with promises of free stuff. It’s inevitable. Phrases like, “basic human right” are going to be bandied about like candy on Halloween. Let’s take a look at the most common things that are described as human rights, or natural rights to see if they would truly fit that description.

Before we begin, let’s talk a little about human rights. Not all rights are created equal. Rights fall into two camps, positive and negative. I know what you are thinking, “positive” sounds like a good word and “negative” sounds like a bad word, so positive rights must be better! Right? Well no, not exactly. Positive rights are things that, when exorcised, would require action from a 3rd party, whereas negative rights can be exercised in the absence of action from a 3rd party. To illustrate the difference, let’s say “I have a positive right to food”. If this were true and I could not feed myself for whatever reason, another person would be obligated or required to feed me. If I say “I have a negative right to food”, and for some reason I could not feed myself, no one would be required to work in order to feed me.

Hopefully, it is clear that rights that need no approval from anyone else to enjoy are superior to rights that require others in order to be enjoyed. This point is fairly well acknowledged by most philosophers and political scientists. Therefore, negative rights are the only true set of natural or human rights we have. Positive rights, in my opinion, are not rights at all. Positive rights are, however, very important aspects of living with each other, in communities, as human beings.

I should also point out that it is a much different thing when private companies use “rights” in their marketing campaigns than when governments do it. When you hear a commercial airline use the phrase, “passenger’s bill of rights”, they are marketing their services and not using the term literally. When advertisers tell you that you have a right to fast, friendly service, they are trying to get your business by insinuating that their competition does not give fast, friendly service. It’s a marketing ploy that I despise because it dilutes not only the word “rights”, but also the concept.

So what are the politicians going to tell you that you have a basic right to? Off the top of my head, I can remember hearing that I have a basic right to:

  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Shelter
  • Healthcare
  • employment
  • Living wage
  • Speech
  • Bear arms
  • Privacy
  • Life
  • Liberty
  • Property

The list is truly endless, so I’ll stop here. So are all these things rights? Which are positive and which are negative? Conveniently, I put the positive rights in the top half and negative rights at the bottom half.

  • If I have a right to food and cannot feed myself, you must feed me. Therefore you are my slave. You have no choice, it is my right.
  • If I have a right to clothing and cannot make my own clothes, you must cloth me. Therefore you are my slave. You have no choice, it is my right.
  • If I have a right to shelter and cannot build it myself, you must build it for me. Therefore you are my slave. You have no choice, it is my right.
  • If I have a right to healthcare and I am not a doctor, you must treat me. Therefore you are my slave. You have no choice, it is my right.
  • If I have a right to a job, you must hire me. Therefore you do not own your business. You have no choice, it is my right.
  • If I have a right to a living wage, you must give me that wage. Therefore you do not own the money your business makes. You have no choice, it is my right.

Let’s contrast these 6 rights with the next 6 rights on the list:

  • If I have a right to free speech, I may speak, but you have no obligation to listen to me. We are both free.
  • If I have a right to bear arms, I may purchase a gun, but you have no obligation to sell me one. We are both free.
  • If I have a right to privacy, I can protect that privacy, but you have no obligation to protect that privacy. We are both free.
  • If I have a right to life, I can defend my life, but you are not obligated to help me. We are both free.
  • If I have a right to liberty, I can defend my liberty, but you are not obligated to help me. We are both free.
  • If I have a right to property, I can buy whatever I want with the money I make, but you are not obligated to sell it to me. We are both free.

The dangers of empowering governments over positive rights are apparent. Positive rights are the main reason we are in $20 trillion in debt. The majority of the federal budget does not go to the military industrial complex or infrastructure (muh roads!). The majority of the federal budget goes to entitlements. Proving food, shelter, healthcare and a living wage to people who cannot or will not endeavor to provide it for themselves. The problem with this that government becomes the middle man between the people who endeavor to take care of themselves and the people who cannot or will not. Taking from one group and giving to the other, all the while telling them that they are “entitled” to what other people have earned through hard work.

In my opinion, only negative rights should be protected by the government. I say this because it costs nothing to exercise these rights. The proper role of government is to protect me if someone infringes on one of my negative rights. Positive rights are best left to the private sector, enforced through contract. Too much power has been taken away from private individuals and groups, and too much has just been given away freely. Churches and other social groups have given away almost all of the moral authority they once had to the government. Deciding what is moral and immoral used to be up to social groups and churches, now the government makes those decisions. The churches freely gave away that authority by lobbying for such things as marriage licenses and sin taxes. Charities used to be the ultimate decision makers as to who received their charity and who did not. Now the government decides who gets what. Charities don’t mind as long as they get their cut. Even charities with the best of intentions get government funding, but what hoops did they have to jump through to get it? Now that we have a government that has taken the power of moral authority and ultimate decider of what we need, we are all a slaves to the state. The recipient of the benefits because they need it to live and the citizen who gets their money taken because they no longer own what they produce.

As more and more people get into a situation where they are living paycheck to paycheck, the temptation to just let the government take care of certain things that they may not be able to afford gets stronger and stronger. Beware when a politician makes a positive right sound like a negative one. Beware when they demonize those who make more than you, stoking your envy. More than likely outside your own decisions in life, the politician is much more responsible for your financial situation than that rich person is. When you use the government to punish the wealthy, you do so at the risk of ceding your freedom. No matter what that politician tells you, you will not get richer by making a rich person poorer. But they will. I implore you to think about your own long term freedom over any short term comfort they might be promising you.

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Bernie Sanders and Economics Don’t Mix

I have to apologize. I haven’t blogged in a while. The truth is that the current political climate is so disheartening that it makes it hard for me to want to write about it. With Donald Trump leading the Republican field and Bernie Sanders leading the Democratic field, there’s not much to want to write about. I don’t think I’ll ever waste another blog on Donald Trump because in my mind he is a joke, and in the end is unelectable (hopefully). Bernie Sanders seem like a much more viable candidate. He is honest, forthright and I get the feeling that he truly believes what he says. Best of all, all his solutions involve giving away “free” stuff! What’s not to like about that?

Bernie Sanders seems, to a rational, thinking person to be unelectable. His economic plans, even to a guy like me with only basic college level economics under my belt, seem to be coming from a virtual land of unicorn fairies, farting rainbows and pixie dust. He is constantly pining for the socialist systems used in the Scandinavian countries. He seems to not understand the American system or the different Scandinavian systems. The problem is that both systems are mostly socialist, just in different areas.

The American economy is socialist from the viewpoint of heavy governmental taxation and inefficient regulations in virtually every aspect of business. There is literally nothing that you buy or use that is not regulated by the government. The fastest growing costs to business are costs associated with compliance to governmental regulations. We are also a highly militarized society, with troops around the world protecting our freedom by trying to force people who don’t think like we do to think like we do. That in itself is a very socialist notion. Even though we have comparatively low personal income taxes compared to Denmark, over half our government spending is on entitlement programs. Because of those low taxes, we are not considered socialist in the area of personal freedom. We have a lot of say in what we do with our own money. Money that we earn.

If you look at places like Denmark or Sweden, the socialism mostly stems from the opposite side of the equation compared to the US. They have very high personal income taxes which allow the government to redistribute the wealth. What this means is that the income inequality is less pronounced, but the chance to become very wealthy is almost impossible. The rich in Denmark theoretically only make about $50,000 more a year than the poor. This means a rich person in Denmark would be considered solidly middle class in America. This is made up for with the vast number of social programs afforded to every citizen. When it comes to the relationship between government and business, these countries by and large are more capitalist than the US. The markets and trade systems are generally freer than the American system.

I think Bernie Sanders is right that we could learn things from Denmark and Sweden, just not the things he wants us to learn. I would love to adopt a more Scandinavian attitude towards efficient regulation, transparency and taxes on business. If we did that, America would be able to go past #12 on the freest economies list. What he actually wants us to learn is the other side of the equation, the side that relies on wealth redistribution. What he doesn’t realize is that it is the free markets that support the social programs in those countries. Bernie Sanders is unwaveringly against free markets. He wants the American socialism and Scandinavian socialism, with none of the capitalism from either. I have news for you, it’s the capitalism that pays for everything.

The other thing Bernie doesn’t realize is that in order for that type of system to work, the people need to buy into the idea that individual freedoms no longer exist, or at least don’t matter nearly as much as the needs of the many. That flies in the face of the American culture. We are a country made up of the most diverse group of people in the world. We are almost every ethnic group, almost every religion, color, creed, and whatever else I can’t think of. But one thing almost all of us have in common is our inherent drive to be individuals. Even those among us who would vote for all the “free” stuff are steadfast individuals. They would not readily accept the fact that the majority of what they earn would need to go to the government, because some government bureaucrat knows what to do with their money better than they do. Most Americans would not accept that, even with the “free” stuff.

Everything that I’ve seen and read regarding places like Norway, Sweden or Denmark tells me that the people there buy into their system. They all for the most part conform to the system and very few people step out of line. I am no saying that it’s negative in any way, to the contrary. If a group of people find a way that works, more power to them. What I am saying is that it won’t work in America any more than the American way of life would work there.

I am honored to know that a few people from Norway, Sweden and Denmark have read my obscure little blog. They seem like wonderful places and are definitely on my bucket lists for places to visit before I die. I would love to hear from anyone living there to see if what I am saying makes any sense. I would also to ask what part of your system that you would like to see exported to the US, as well as what you would import from the American way of life.