I was thinking about this in light of some of the things I’ve been watching and reading lately and I wanted to put it down in writing before the train of thought left me. One of the biggest debates going on in our modern society today is about rights. What constitutes a right and how are we to interact with them? It’s difficult to come to a consensus on this issue.
Every issue we have stems from this very topic, from gender politics to gun control to welfare. It is the definition of a right versus what the majority of people think about it that causes so many issues. For example, the right to freedom of speech is an American value that virtually all citizens agree with. We do so because we value individual freedom and the ability to express ourselves our way without being stifled by anyone else. Very few people in the United States would disagree that self expression is an important part of a free society.
On the other side is the contentious topic of the Second Amendment. A growing portion of the country has come to feel that firearms have no place in a civilized society and have campaigned for their removal. It used to be felt that a person had the right to defend himself from any danger in whatever way he felt was necessary, but more and more the government is restricting our access to the ability to effectively defend ourselves. What was once a mostly undisputed right has now become a privilege in some parts of the country. For example, in some parts of California, it is nearly impossible to obtain a license to carry a firearm on your person (“bear arms”) in public. It is a direct infringement on our right to self defense.
The problem with this viewpoint is that we are not settling on a set definition of what constitutes a right, and that causes so much confusion in our politics. A right is something that is a default part of who we are as individuals. It is something that cannot be dictated by others. It is something that applies to every person in the entire world, regardless of government or creed or any other social construct. It is inherent in who we are.
The Bill of Rights isn’t really what empowers us with the rights we enjoy as Americans. That document can be torn up and discarded at any moment if we so choose. A piece of paper has no power by itself. What the Bill of Rights does is put down in writing what we all know to be fundamental rights attributable to all human beings. They are what we intuitively understand are part of what it means to be individuals. They are immutable and not open to debate.
You can argue the finer points of how we interpret these rights, but fundamental rights are a part of the human condition. Freedom of expression is something that every person in the world longs for. No one can seriously argue that a person has no right to defend themselves from harm, physical or otherwise. Privacy is an important part of being an individual, as without privacy you can never develop your own way of looking at the world. Individual rights are fundamental exactly because we are a world of individuals. We may come together in common cause, but at the end of the day we each make our own decisions. We are not a hive mind, and our will is our own.
The purpose of this post isn’t to extol the virtues of any one specific right, but to point out that these rights do exist and we need to understand what they are and what they aren’t. A right is something that only you have the power to exercise. It is not something that is bestowed to you by someone else. No one can give them to you. It is for you to hold them and protect them.
Things like freedom of speech and the right to bear arms are not something that anyone can give to you. You choose to express yourself or not; to defend yourself or not. No one else has any obligation at all to express your point of view for you or protect you from harm. Many may choose to, but it is exactly that they have that choice that your rights are yours alone. If you have to force someone else to do it, it isn’t a right.
An example of this is health care. Many people have come to view this as a basic right, but this is directly contrary to the idea that rights only apply at the individual level. You can’t force someone to become a doctor, and even if you tried, the care they provide would be vastly inferior to someone who had a passion for healing people. Would you jail them for failing to provide proper healthcare? What then? Who would replace them? Another person who cares nothing about medicine but is a doctor now because there is a quota? No matter how much money you spend, you can’t make someone a good doctor when he doesn’t care.
This is the problem with the idea that we can engineer a society. When you start deciding that it is necessary to impose things on people you are starting to push against the fundamental rights of those people. It is when we choose our own way that we become the best version of ourselves. The freedom to make our own choices is paramount to anything else. The attempt to force a way on someone else violates those rights.
This is not to say that certain things are not good because they put the needs of the community before those of the individual. Most people would agree that there are many things in which it is virtuous to make sacrifices for the greater good. However, it is necessary to differentiate between sacrifices made voluntarily and those that are forced upon individuals who disagree. That is what makes all the difference.
Charity is a prime example of this. When a person receives their paycheck and chooses to give a portion of it to help others, that is something almost anyone would see as a good thing. However, when the government slices out a portion of that check via taxes so it can be given as charity in the form of welfare programs, the outcome may still be good, but the method violates the right of the individual to choose to not be charitable, or at the very least choose what cause to give his money to. The decision is made for him and he has no say in the matter. And if he tries not paying his taxes because he disagrees, either his money is stolen from him or he is put in jail. His right to choose how he spends his resources has been taken away.
When we look at what it is that makes us human, we can’t ignore individuality. No matter how many of us might agree on a topic, there will always be those who don’t and it is fundamentally wrong to force our ways on them. We know this to be true because we know that we would feel violated if those people found a way to force their ideology on us. This is why we established from the outset that we would specifically recognize that we have individual rights that are encoded into our system of government. The hope was that we wouldn’t have to fight for them again because it is a default part of our nation.
There are many who want to wipe out individual liberty because they feel threatened by the ideas or actions of others, or find them to be an impediment to their own ambitions. What they fail to realize is that these fundamental rights are a core part of who we are as human beings, and eventually that part of us that craves individuality will lash out when we realize that there is no other option. When we are backed into a corner and the only option is force, we will rise up against those who try to oppress us. It is just who we are.
So before you start thinking that your favorite idea is a right, ask yourself this question: is this something that someone else has to do for me? If the answer is yes, then it is not a right and it is not something you should be trying to force one someone else. Our fundamental rights give us the ability to reject the thoughts and opinions of others, regardless of the reasons, and you have no right to force your ways on others, whether that be through coercion, government, or physical violence.
You do so at your own peril.
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