It all started out simply enough. Our God fearing and John Locke inspired founding fathers enshrined what they believed to be natural rights into the social and legal fabric of the United States. The right to life, to [individual] liberty, the right to property - okay, so they left that one out. Otherwise they left us with an inheritance based on the primacy of the individual against the state. While my understanding may be awry, these rights were never much controversial.

As time marched on these existing rights were amended and largely broadened to include, quite properly, more and more members of society. The right to vote, the right to own property (oops, that pesky one again), why should these be limited based upon race or sex?

Unfortunately, the last few decades have seen wild attempts to extend the concept of rights into almost every aspect of life. The concept has become fetishized. Everything is now a “right”. The term is bandied about with no understanding of the implications. People want a “right” to employment, a “right” to healthcare, a “right” to higher education.

What is wrong with having employment, healthcare, or higher education? Are these things not, in fact, good for society? The answers are nothing, and yes. However there is a distinction between a “good” and a “right”. A good is something that we want to have. It might make only one person better off. It might, by virtue of that one person having it, make everyone else better off, too. However there is a distinction between a good and a right that becomes clear when you look at the implication of a right.

A right is something that is deserved. Whether or not you agree, and I’m not so sure I do, the bill of rights exists because the founders thought that these things, freedom of speech and religion for instance, were inherently deserved by members of a society. These were naturally deserved, by virtue of our humanity. Thus, all others have, or at least the state has, an obligation not to take away these freedoms. Therein lies the right.

So a right to a freedom is an obligation not to take it away, and a right to a thing is an obligation for others to provide it. Let’s stop this “rights” talk and start talking in obligations. The government has an obligation not to abridge my freedom of speech. The government has an obligation not to quarter soldiers in my home during peacetime. The government has an obligation to provide healthcare or the financial backing for healthcare to all Americans… or rather, you and I, as citizens and taxpayers, have an obligation to provide healthcare for everyone who lacks. Well, that’s funny, suddenly it sounds a little different.

The better question is, from where do these rights and obligations arise? I heard just the other day that we are not limited to legal rights but societal rights, too, whatever that may mean. Presumably then these rights and obligations arise from the very nature of our humanity and society. That of course depends not only the existence of god but on the existence of a commonly accepted version of god. Whether one accepts the former, the latter, as an arguably social construction, does not exist. So maybe these rights and obligations come about because everyone agrees on them.

If that is the case, that rights and obligations only arise because we as members of society consent to them, through what mechanism do we do so? Perhaps through our membership in society. Perhaps I acquiesce to whatever rights and obligations percolate through common culture and by not removing myself from society I consent. Well I hardly think that is a solid argument. What could possibly govern a mechanism providing rights and obligations to individuals in society? Well, gosh, maybe, just maybe, we could vote on these things, taking advantage of our existing consensual mechanisms. Then we could even record these new rights and obligations, those agreed upon through the agreed upon mechanism, and call it “law”. Hot damn!

Beware the next time someone claims that something is a “right” without explaining why. It is a sly way of avoiding argument and making the opposition disprove a claim to a good.