Ramsey Clark was the Attorney General of the United States from 1967 to 69.  Talking about rights, he is credited with this comment – “A right is not what someone gives you, it’s what no one can take from you.”

So-called progressives demand that all manner of publicly-provided goods and services are human rights.  Food stamps can be classified as a public good but are they a right?  A housing subsidy may be justified on any number of grounds but is it a right?  Health care assured by the government is surely a public good but, again, is it a right?

Understand that the public good in each of these cases is not the product provided but rather the higher state of wellbeing, which benefits the whole of society.  It is not the benefit to the individual but the aggregate benefit to the whole.  With food stamps, the public good is a well-fed citizenry; it is not the food stamps and is not the food.  A Section 8 voucher helps a family, but it is the better-housed citizenry that constitutes the public good.  Likewise, we all benefit from a healthy populace but, the value of good health to the individual notwithstanding, it is only the aggregated benefit which is public good.

The problem with elevating a benefit into a right is that individual rights carry with them societal obligations.  Food, education, healthcare and housing are clearly benefits to the recipients and any society may choose to offer these to its members.  It may even do so beyond its means if it has the economic clout to print and or/borrow the money.  But to elevate these public goals into human rights is to make them the responsibility of the group.  If you are entitled to health care as a right, then we are obliged to provide you with health care, arguably in unlimited quantities.  It may be wise to do so, but there is real danger in making it an obligation.  In many countries of the world, this discussion can’t even begin because the resources are so woefully lacking.

Were health care or housing a right, there would be no end to what must be provided.  Everyone, of course, would have equal rights.  How might that work?  Who gets the penthouse on top of Nob Hill and who gets to decide?  Should all housing be government provided and identical so that it is fair to all?  (This is problematic enough even with acknowledged rights.  A fair trial when a crime is alleged is theoretically equally available to all; in practice, not so much.)

That goods and services are rights is nonsensical.  This is true even when considering the most essential and beneficial human needs – even those with near universal acceptance.  And so, what then is a right and who gets to say so?

A right cannot simply be what an individual, or even a substantial group of individuals, claims it to be.  There are centuries of philosophy and civic practice which suggest what constitutes a genuine human right.  In the end, however, acknowledged and enforceable rights are limited to those recognized in a governing document to which all must subscribe.

The concept of constitutional rights is time honored and legitimate.  It is after all, the law to which we are all obligated, even if we disagree.  Housing is a Human Right on a placard at a demonstration does not make housing a right.  Next time you see such a sign, ask the sign-bearer:  Who gets the mansion and who gets the trailer – and who gets to decide?  Most assuredly, if s/he can convert civic activism into political power, s/he will get the mansion and you will get the trailer.

 

Albert Sukoff is the Editor of BPOA Monthly, the publication of the Berkeley Property Owners Association – www.bpoa.org.  Reprinted with permission.