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Saturday, June 13, 2015

What are the right rights?

In January after the Charlie Hebdo killings, I blogged about freedom of speech. Since then, I've noticed that assertions of rights arise in many social and political debates.
  • The right to receive education.
  • The right to a living wage.
  • The right to unionize and to bargain collectively, or alternatively the right to work without participating in a union or paying union dues.
  • The right to carry a concealed weapon or to own an assault weapon.
  • The right to use cannabis (yes, I've heard it put in that way).
  • The right to terminate one's life.
  • The right to vote, unencumbered by political wrangling or even felony conviction.
  • The rights to immigrate into the U.S. and to remain after arriving here.
  • The right to privacy, the primary basis of Roe v. Wade.
  • The right not to be discriminated against because of sexual orientation or transgender.
  • The right to receive healthcare.
  • The right never to go hungry.
  • The right to decent, affordable housing.
  • Rights that would have been guaranteed under the Equal Rights Amendment.
  • The right to receive telecommunications connectivity, advocated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and at least one candidate for President.
  • The right to receive allowances of energy and water, either free or at affordable prices, as global warming creates drought in certain areas and the abandonment of fossil fuels and nuclear reactors to produce electricity leads to a rise in energy prices. (I believe this is an important emerging debate.)
  • The right of amateur radio operators, licensed by the U.S. government, to erect antennas regardless of restrictive covenants in deeds for real property. (I'm particularly fond of this one.)
I could go on. You've heard other examples, I'm sure.

Few of these are explicitly granted in any constitution in the U.S., although North Carolina does grant the first. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations provides a longer list than the Bill of Rights, but only a few more on my list can be found in the UDHR. Perhaps some rights could be reasonably inferred, but certainly not all.

On the other hand, Ayn Rand zealots complain that the right to receive something, however laudable or valuable, has a mirror image: the duty or obligation of the state or society to provide it. To objectivists, such a duty or obligation inevitably impinges on their own right of liberty, which they interpret to mean the freedom to ignore someone else's needs or desires. Nothing is without controversy.

As a nation we have been working on the list of rights ever since the Declaration of Independence and the original U.S. Constitution. (The one right specifically granted by the original Constitution is the right of inventors and authors to receive what became known as patents and copyrights.) But I wonder, has the language of debate changed recently? Semantics say that the way we frame a discussion has a profound impact on how the discussion proceeds. Historically a "right" was nearly permanent (i.e. difficult to abolish), nearly absolute (i.e., constrained only by conflicting rights), and nearly universal (i.e., almost everyone is entitled). Consequently we required supermajorities or even virtual consensus to establish them. Now, fifty-percent-plus-one is good enough. It seems to me that the longer a list of proposed rights gets, they become less consummate, more quarrelsome to implement, and more divisive instead of unifying. But I believe many of the items in my list are worthy aims of society. I am in quandary.