Thursday, February 11, 2016

Notions of Rights are All Wrong

(From the February 11, 2016 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Bernie Sanders has become popular for making assertions about people’s “rights.” But he is so wrong.

He has been adamant on the campaign trail that health care is a “right.” But, while popular among throngs of mostly young people, this idea is pure folly when examined more closely.

First, he isn’t talking about health “care.” He’s talking about insurance. Insurance is a product of risk management—we buy it as a hedge against a future misfortune in which we need health care and then we’ll have the means to pay for it. But our society has corrupted this notion in two ways. First, we have equated health insurance and care as the same thing, such that we have insurance approve and pay for everything instead of the most expensive procedures and medicines. Second, we have equated health as entirely a right and removed any notion of the incumbent associated responsibility.

It would be helpful to look at a history of health insurance. Companies began offering health insurance as a benefit after World War Two as a benefit to attract employees when there was a labor shortage. But after decades of employee health insurance, people came to expect it. We went from understanding health insurance as a benefit to seeing it as an entitlement. And it was a short step from that to seeing our health not as our responsibility at least in part and seeing it as a right.

This leads to the most important and fundamental question: what is a “right”? To summarize a lot of political philosophy, a right is the sovereign ability to act without the permission of others, in particular the government. Each person may exercise their own rights up to the point where they infringe on the rights of others. A right is universal, and as such applies to all individuals, not just a few. A right must be exercised through one’s own effort and initiative. This means a right is not a claim on others. None of us has a right to anyone else’s time, life, money, or property.

In fact, the “Bill of Rights,” a set of amendments to the U.S. Constitution, was written by James Madison in response to several states that wanted more protection of individual liberty—in other words they wanted freedom FROM government and not more regulation by or dependence on it. This is how we got free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, protection against illegal search and seizure, a fair trial and other well known rights. Nowhere does this document grant us the right to have other people, through the government, pay for anything for us.

This is why Bernie Sanders, as well as Hillary Clinton and other candidates, are flat wrong when they talk about taking from some to provide for others as a form of guaranteeing “rights.” We may as a nation to decide to enact various social welfare policies, and we already have. But these are acts of corporate (in the sense of collective) compassion, not the fulfillment of rights.

The Sanders position that college should be free gets an F in policy based on the above. It’s not free. Someone is paying for it. And if students don’t pay for it, they will most likely have less appreciation for it. Also, what to say of students who can afford to pay for it? Our system is not perfect now, but a sizable number of students go to college on merit and need-based scholarships. College attendance should continue to be based on responsibility and social compassion—it is not a right.

All of this misguided talk of rights is offering candy to new voters. It is part of a leftist meme of hating all wealthy people indiscriminately and redistributing what is most often rightfully theirs. This avid socialism and over-generalized animosity towards successful people is dispiriting and shameful. Certainly, there is fraud on Wall Street, as Sanders says. But not all wealthy people are fraudsters. And not all fraudsters are wealthy. Not all rich people avoid taxes. The New York Times reported last fall that the top 1% pay one-third of their income in taxes, the next quartile—the top 2-5%--pay a quarter of their income in taxes. The bottom half of earners pay one-tenth of their income in taxes, if they pay any. The IRS reports that 40% of all tax revenue comes from the top 1% of earners. Taxing the rich more and giving to others regardless of their need and self-initiative is not correcting any kind of wrong nor is it a sustainable plan.

There is room for policy improvement in our country. But simple-minded, hate-the-rich anger and pandering to people with incorrect notions of their “rights” is not the kind of reasoned leadership we need.

When Barack Obama ran for president at first he chided his predecessor for his “failed policies of the past 8 years.” Yet Bernie Sanders proposes policies that have failed for the past 80 years in socialist regimes from Latin America to Eastern Europe. Even those who are far from rich see the folly of Sanders’ socialism. Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of a grocer who became Britain’s Prime Minister, noted that the “problem with socialism is that sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.” Star Parker, an African American former welfare recipient who is now a syndicated columnist, has noted that “the poor are not poor because the rich are rich.” 

And there’s me, the product of a plumber and an immigrant who sees Sanders not as a progressive but one whose plans are regressive, to the lack of liberty, responsibility and opportunity that denied us true rights before we declared independence.