The Nature of Rights

There seems to be much discussion about rights today.  The Declaration of Independence proclaims that we have certain “unalienable” rights that proceed from our creator.  These rights include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  But many today claim rights far beyond those mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.  According to some we all have a right to a good job, a “living wage”, health care, housing and more.

This, of course, leads to the question, what are our rights and where do they come from?  I do not intend to deal with the source of rights in this post.  Rather, I want to examine the nature of rights and what might reasonably qualify as rights.

There is a clear difference between rights defined by the Declaration of Independence and those “rights” claimed by many today and that difference is readily apparent.  Those rights put forth in the Declaration of Independence require no positive action beyond the state protecting such rights.  Each person is responsible to make the most of their individual rights but others have no obligation to assist in their fruition.  It has been said that your rights end at my nose, meaning your rights make no claim on me.

Rights such as the right to a job, health care, etc. can make no such claim.  If I have a right to a job that means someone else must provide that job.  If I have a right to health care it logically follows that someone else must provide that health care.  Such rights confer upon me the “right” to impose upon another.  That is, my right must necessarily interfere with the rights of another.

I submit that such a “right” is nonexistent.  Indeed, such rights are a logical contradiction because they necessitate the violation of one “right” in order to ensure another.  If that is the case then there is no such thing as a right in the first place.  Rights become simply assertions that can be enforced.  Such assertions are referred to as rights but they do not meet the criterion to be rights.

The rights presented in the Declaration of Independence suffer no such difficulty.  This is so precisely because these rights make no claims on the actions of another.  The only claim beyond the individual is the responsibility of the state to protect the individual against the infringement of their rights by another.  My right to life may not be taken away except through due process of law but no other individual is require to take any positive action to ensure I live.

Rights as the Declaration of Independence presents them may accurately be called rights because they meet the criteria of rights.  My rights do not extend to forcing others to take actions beyond the state obligation to protect me.  A genuine right does not allow me to force another to give me something.  Otherwise it would not be a right because it would automatically infringe upon the rights of another.

When someone claims that something like a job or health care or housing are rights, the only accurate gauge to determine the validity of that claim is whether such a right allows the infringement of some other right.  If it does, it is not a right.