Monday, July 20, 2009

But It's My Right!

A brief Simpsons interlude:

Milhouse: You're lucky. You only joined the Junior Campers. I got a dirty word shaved into the back of my head.

(Skinner walks by and stops when he sees the unseen "dirty word" in the back of Milhouse's head)

Principal Skinner: What is it with you kids and that word? (grabs Milhouse) I'm going to shave you bald, young man, until you learn that hair is not a right, it's a privilege!

Buried in the incredibly long post I used to explain my opposition to government-run healthcare was a line about free healthcare not being a right. This got me thinking about the proliferation of rights in this country. Everything is being described as a right, usually in order to elevate a privilege or to sway voters.

My admittedly inadequate research failed to define a precise point in time when this phenomenon started, but I feel confident that if I could find that point, it would lay a lot farther back along the time continuum than I would guess right now. For the record, my current guess is 8:14 pm on October 26th, 1997.

What is the difference between a privilege and a right? In the context of the Constitution, I would argue that a privilege is something that can be taken away, while a right is something that cannot. The Constitution is a handy document, but one that is commonly misunderstood by people who quote it. Many people think that the Constitution lists the rights of individual citizens of the United States. That's sort of true, but it does it from the angle of limiting the rights of the federal government.

Take the right to free speech. People commonly misread the First Amendment, usually to argue that not allowing a speaker time on the air is a violation of free speech, or that not allowing a permit to this or that group to walk in this or that parade is censorship.

The First Amendment reads thusly:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Too many people think that means they have a right to say whatever they want, whenever they want and use any medium to say it, without consequences. It doesn't really work that way. The government can't limit your right to speak out, but that doesn't immunize you from the consequences visited upon you by your employer, the private business where you exercised your right, or the public at large.

I say all this to throw contrast on some other things that people claim are "rights" when they really should be saying "privilege". Things like:

* Internet access (skip ahead to the 4:45 mark)

* Clean air

* Peace

* Quiet

* Milk

* Power usage statistics

* Nutritional information on menus

I could go on (and on and on). I'm not arguing that any of those bulleted privileges above are inherently undesirable. But when you elevate something to the status of a right by virtue of the item in question being a nice idea and something you really really want, you demean the word "right" in its greater context.

If a study came out tomorrow that milk causes cancer, most people would be fine with limiting access to milk. Does your "right" to quiet trump my "right" to host band practice in my garage? Do I have to pay out of my own pocket so that someone else's "right" to internet access isn't infringed upon? Define clean air. What if I don't like your definition?

On the other hand, I can't think of a situation in which a person in his or her right mind would agree that free speech should be revoked, that religion should be outlawed, or that there's no such thing as unlawful search and seizure. See the difference? We have laws to define acceptable behavior in a society and to convey privileges (or restrict said privileges). Rights are things we can never envision or support being taken away.

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