Every day I hear people demanding their rights. It’s my right to a living wage, affordable housing, health care, food, free education, high-speed internet — the list seems endless. And for our younger generations, does this unending stream of proclamations of “rights” undermine the true nature of “rights”?
Interestingly, these proclamations are rarely accompanied by proclamations of individual responsibility and obligations.
It seems today that many have lost sight of the fact that the incredible freedoms of our country are tied to the concept of individual rights and liberty, and so-called rights that impose an obligation on others are fundamentally not rights at all. While society may agree through taxation to provide certain benefits, these are not rights. Governments may decide to take possession of private property for public good, but this necessarily includes compensation (eminent domain laws) to comply with the rights of private property.
Conflating benefits approved by voters as rights is a very slippery slope.
Current events are causing us to focus on these issues and they are worthy of discussion — calm, reasoned and thoughtful discussion.
Debates over how to handle COVID-19 and its endless stream of current and future mutations are a raging issue today and probably will be for years to come. Do you have an obligation to protect yourself, or do I have an obligation to protect you? Can I be required to take medicine that may harm me at some statistical level to protect you from some potential statistical risk?
In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court in Jacobson v. Massachusetts ruled on this issue of individual rights versus societal rights regarding immunization, deciding that a state legislature (not the executive) has the power to mandate immunizations to protect the whole at the potential expense of the individual. Underlying this decision is the assumption that the legislature is expressing the will of the electorate — that the public, through its representatives, approves of the trade-off, and that if you don’t like the acts of the legislature, you are free to vote them out or move somewhere else.
The Supreme Court just heard a case regarding abortion rights. Is Roe v. Wade a constitutionally defensible ruling by a prior court? Should there be a federal position on this issue or is this something best left to the states? Does the privacy right enable mothers to terminate pregnancy without the intervention of the state? If there are limits, do some fetuses have more rights than the women carrying them, or fewer rights than others (such as the result of rapists)?
Can I enact a wealth tax? A wealth tax simply takes your property. Can I decide you have saved too much money, and therefore take some of it? How does this square with your right of private property and the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which states that no “private property (shall) be taken for public use, without just compensation”? If you take $100 from my savings account, are you required to replace it with $100?
My hope is that our discussions as a community and society will lead to greater understanding and mutual respect. And this will lead to more reasoned and thoughtful recognition of our rights and our responsibilities.
My greatest fear is that our society is changing from a majority who achieve, contribute, take personal responsibility for their actions and life and create value to one where a significant group of people believe they are entitled to that which is not earned or deserved, making them devoid of individual responsibility.
My view is that the greatest gift my generation can give our younger generations is the clear understanding that they are entrusted with the individual responsibility to care for themselves and prosper. That the role of government is not to take and dole out, but to safeguard individual liberty and freedom to allow for individual achievement and the pursuit of happiness. That they truly hold their future in their hands. Anything less threatens the American dream.
Bob Perry lives in Lakebay.
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