All Commentary
Tuesday, February 1, 1972

Rights and Pseudo-Rights

Fr. Lindl is a graduate student at Princeton University.

Congress has been working on a welfare reform bill, The Family Assistance Plan, for two years now. What is the nature of this)ill? If it is approved, Congress will have declared its intention to guarantee to every American the “right” to a minimum yearly income. As such it merely represents a logical extension of recent trends of the sixties which has seen a proliferation of “rights” — rights to health care, education, housing, jobs, and food. The only difference between this and other measures that have been enacted is its scope and potential for expansion. But bills enacted in the late sixties were more expensive than those of the early sixties, and so forth. As such, this is just a continuing trend, too. All of these bills are of a single nature and must be analyzed as such.

Their common denominator is the “rights” they declare, a strange set of rights, indeed. Despite the rhetoric of proponents who claim these are rights guaranteed to every American, they quite obviously are not. If every American quit working, there would be no goods to satisfy their claims for these rights. So these bills in effect provide goods and services to those who have not provided for themselves, at the expense of those who have. A “right” of one person that can only be satisfied at the expense of another is obviously no right at all. It is a decree that sets up two classes of people, those served, and those required to serve. The proliferation of such laws is one of the most dangerous developments in recent U.S. political history.

A primary right must always be a right to action, not to goods as such. All goods must be produced by prior actions and hence are already someone’s rightful property. The right to act implicitly includes the responsibility for the consequences of one’s action and the right to the use and disposal of the products of one’s action. The rights of the American Constitution are all proper rights to action. But the very principle of these rights has been undermined by the growth of belief in various pseudo-rights.

The Nature of Rights

Rights reside in individuals. There is no such thing as group rights except as they are an extension of individual rights. A political right which is not possessed by every individual, regardless of his membership in a group, is merely a license for a particular group to exploit others not in the group. For example, consider “Welfare Rights.” This is generally taken to mean the right to the means for a certain level of existence. Is this a right, universally applicable to all? Could we guarantee to everyone the right to a minimum subsistence without imposing on some group the responsibility of providing that subsistence? Clearly not. This is the test to distinguish between a genuine and a bogus right. If it applies equally to all, at the expense of no one in particular, it is a genuine right. If some one group benefits while another foots the bill, it is a counterfeit.

A common response to these arguments is that a majority of the people have elected the representatives who have passed the laws; so they really have chosen freely where their money and effort should go. But even on the face of it, this is not true. A member of Congress can be elected by 51 per cent of the vote. But even that 51 per cent is surely going to disagree with their representative a fair fraction of the time. So, before a candidate ever records a vote, he probably has fewer than 50 per cent of the voters behind him. And then, legislation can be passed with the assent of a mere 51 per cent of the legislators, further reducing the likelihood that even a majority of persons agree with the decision. So the best one can say of a representative democratic process is that the largest fraction wins.

Democracy Justified in Maintaining The Rule of Law

The only justification for a system where the largest fraction imposes its will on everyone else is that such a system has historically been the most effective in curbing and limiting the police power of the state. This police power is a necessary protection against those members of every society who would try to impose their will by force or fraud on other human beings. A government whose police power is used solely for this purpose is no threat to any peaceful citizen, since it may never initiate the use of force. It only acts to prevent the use of force. Historically, no people has ever achieved a society whose government strictly adhered to this function. But the democracies of the world have come closest; and of them, the United States of the nineteenth century came closest of all. This achievement of democracy is its only justification. If it fails in this function, a democracy has no justification at all. Majority tyranny is no less a tyranny because it is a majority. The argument that democracy justifies the various pseudo-rights is pernicious. It perverts the function of democracy and further obscures the meaning of rights. In the end it serves to destroy democracy by giving rise to pressure-group warfare.

Until these facts are recognized and acted upon, the present trend in domestic legislation will continue with undiminished vigor.