Leo Morris: Be careful what you consider your ‘right’


I hope to make lots of new friends today by reminding Hoosiers of something: You do not have a right to food, shelter or health care.

Before I am accused of being selfish and heartless, which I assuredly will be, let’s try to make a distinction.

Yes, you do need those things if you are to have any chance of a meaningful existence. And maybe, as a fellow human being, I should help provide them for you if you can’t do it all yourself.

Call it a moral obligation, perhaps. Or my duty as a good citizen. Or simply my implied commitment as a member of the same community in which we have shared values.

But they are not your right.

What triggered this rant was an opinion piece distributed by the Capital Chronicle news service. It declared that Indiana has the highest single-housing cost burden in all Midwest states for the lowest-income residents, and detailed how the state was far friendlier to landlords than tenants and lamented the lack of “affordable housing” here.

We can accept all that as true and have a good discussion about what should be done about it. But the article lost me in the way it was framed: “Housing is not a human right in Indiana,” the headline screamed.

Nor anywhere else, I thought.

Rights, properly understood, at least in connection with this country’s foundational concepts, belong to all of us. We have them simply because we are human — call them natural or God-given depending on your philosophy. And they are inalienable; they cannot be taken away. The purpose of government, in fact, is not to dispense rights, but to protect those rights we already have — to life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness.

And the most important part of a right: Exercising it does not require anybody else to give up a right. My claim to liberty does not require you to relinquish yours. Your pursuit of happiness does not negate my pursuit of happiness. Our only obligation is to respect each other’s rights.

That is the very concept of rights that this nation was built upon — negative rights, that is, a delineation of where government may not tread.

But then came a whole school of thought, stressed by presidents like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and carried on by ones like Barack Obama and Joe Biden, that declares a commitment to positive rights. We should not just define areas the government should stay out of, but also look to it to provide the things we need.

But those “rights” do not pre-exist; they are created by institutions. They certainly are not inalienable — they can be removed on a whim, as easily as they are granted.

And, most important, they do take away from others. Any exercise of a positive right creates an obligation on somebody else’s part.

If you have the right to food, somebody must grow it for you and distribute it to you. If you have the right for shelter, someone must build it. If you have the right to medical care, someone must provide it.

And someone must pay for it all. Any assertion of a “positive right” is a claim against the community as a whole.

You may think I’m making too fine a distinction here. We just need to identify what human beings need to have dignity in their lives and figure out how to provide it, not nitpick over definitions.

Perhaps I am. If I’d lived in Victorian England and witnessed the brutal inhumanity visited upon the poor, I might have flirted with socialism. I think any decent person would have.

But words matter. The more we cheapen the concept of what a right is, the more we accept the government as arbiter of what we deserve to have, and the further we drift away from freedom. The more of it we give up, the less we will notice when it keeps eroding.

We are already at the point where the predominant political philosophy is, “I want what I want when I want it and how I want it.” Believe it or not, that is not that far away from, “You’ll take what we give you and like it.”

We should be careful of what we ask for, and of whom we ask it. Our right to the pursuit of happiness includes the option of being stupid. Let’s please not be.

Leo Morris, columnist for Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier State Press Association’s award for best editorial writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected].

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