The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Right's rights are the wrong rights

By Brendan Duke

When I opened the Mac Weekly opinion section last Friday, I expected another debate over domestic diversity from the left or intellectual diversity from the right. Needless to say, I was surprised to read a piece of political philosophy. Joseph Schultz did us a service by giving us an intelligent, well-written opinion piece titled “So what are rights, anyway.” He drew upon Isaiah Berlin’s classic argument on negative rights, which allow you the right to do as you wish as long as it bothers nobody else, and positive rights which require violating the liberty of another individual. Schultz argued that we should retain as many negative rights as possible while eschewing positive ones. We on the Left tend to cast our policy preferences as rights but the Right is just as guilty.

The difference between positive and negative rights is little more than words. When we divide rights, few question my right not to have my private property stolen. But what of a starving person’s right to use what she needs without interference, my property included? Surely that would infringe on my right not to have my private property stolen. But, then again, would I not be interfering with her right to use what she needs? The correct question becomes: who is interfering with whom?

However, let’s just assume there were a right not to have your private property stolen above all other rights and someone steals my property without moral justification. Do I yell at him knowing that I am right? Do I write an angry opinion in The Mac Weekly? No, I call the police. But who funds the police? My fellow taxpayers and I? Is police protection then an entitlement? Could it be that those who reject positive rights might just be calling the positive rights they don’t like unjust and not others?

Enough of this Socratic opinion piece. A right is something we are justly entitled to, despite what our democratically elected government may say. However, not everything under the sky is a right. We have natural rights (a right to live, a right to say what we think, etc.) and constitutional rights (a right to bear arms, a right to avoid self-incrimination, etc.), and the American people, through their constitutionally elected officials, can regulate most everything else.

Luckily, our government is democratic, tempered by checks, balances and respect for those rights, and we trust that our fellow citizens will choose representatives who will make good laws. What stops Congress from creating a 99 percent income tax is not our right to keep what we earn, but our right to choose our representatives by kicking them out of office.

While I agree with Schultz that there is no right to Social Security, there is no right not to pay taxes to Social Security. If “people employed within government work to better their own position” by creating social programs, as Schultz argued, maybe it’s because they’re part of the 80 percent of the American public (number taken from a CBS/New York Times Poll at that believes it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure a decent standard of living for the elderly. Our nation loves rights, but it loves democracy just as much.

The self-made man is this country’s most enduring myth, for nobody succeeds alone. Government-built roads ship the materials we need, government-educated workers can read and count, while government-funded research improves our lives and gives American industry a comparative advantage. Simply put, the state allows us to do great things of which we would otherwise not be capable.

Government is not all milk and honey. History has shown that the state is more capable of repression and violence than anything else. In light of the domestic spying scandal, we need rights to protect us from government and preserve our freedom more than ever.

But to use the language of liberty to prevent us from ensuring a decent life for all is wrong. As Isaiah Berlin once wrote, “Freedom for the wolves has often meant death for the sheep.”

Perhaps before we let the wolves out, we better ask the sheep what they think.

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