When Rights Are Not

Washington Times 7.31.01
Balint Vazsonyi

As the battle over a "Patients' Bill of Rights" continues to rage, we would do well to remind ourselves of what rights are - and what they are not. If we fail to reverse the current trend of creating rights which are not, we will lose the ones we truly possess.

Most alarming about the proposed Patients' Bill of Rights - and others usurping the label - is the insinuation its legitimacy would be comparable to that of the original. Nothing could be farther removed from the truth.

The label "Bill of Rights" refers, as everyone knows, to the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States. The wording of these amendments makes their function crystal clear. "Congress shall make no law," we read in the first of these, "...abridging...the right of the people..." "...the right of the people," we read in the second, "shall not be infringed."

In other words, these amendments do not presume to grant rights. They merely affirm rights that the people possess, and guarantee they shall be free from government interference.

Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison did not presume to grant rights. Edward Kennedy and John McCain do.

Next, the U.S. Constitution, as amended, speaks of "the people" or of "citizens." That means everyone. But these new rights do not apply equally to every American.

The most important difference, though, has to do with money. Nothing in the original Bill of Rights costs anyone a cent. Freedom of speech or assembly, being held harmless from unreasonable searches or seizures do not entail the exchange of funds.

Every single new "right" either funnels money directly to certain Americans at the expense of other Americans, or invites certain Americans to help themselves to the purse of other Americans.

What the legislative harvest of the past decades has created are not rights but entitlements. Entitlements cannot be traced back to any principle or document of the American Founding. No American is entitled to the fruits of the labor of other Americans. If we are willing to face facts (these days we are not), it is easy to discover that entitlements come from the world of socialism.

And here is the problem. Only a minority of our legislators are socialists. The majority believe in the very American tradition of helping those in need. What they have forgotten is how America was supposed to deal with the unavoidable inequality among humans.

America's answer was equality before the law. Unlike other countries, where obstacles bar the way to social mobility, the Founding Fathers created a system of laws that permitted mobility in every direction. Millions upon millions of stories attest to the success of that approach.

America's answer was the application of common sense. Taking the long-term view, the Founders assumed that freedom from government interference would result in good people and communities, naturally inclined to look after the needs of their neighbors. Unlike in other lands, Americans were not forced to waste their creative energies by constantly battling government. That was the reason for so few laws (the fewer the laws, the broader the agreement), and for most restrictions placed upon government. And only the politically blind would fail to see that it has worked.

On the other hand, the creation of entitlements - whether to actual cash or other peoples' purses - has resulted in a constant need to reopen, re-balance, and re-regulate the same area of activity, over and over again. That is not American common sense. That, let us face it, is socialist blundering in a dark tunnel.

Few aspects of our lives are more intimately personal than our health. No one can argue that we have been losing both the need and our prerogative to make choices and decisions. One of the decisions people had to make not so long ago was whether to spend money on, say, $200 gym shoes or to see a better physician. Demagoguery has made it impossible even to raise the question of personal responsibility.

To put it another way, do we really want to pay dental bills for someone who will not brush twice a day and use the floss? Perhaps, but then let it be our decision, not the right of the other person.

Just now, we are moving in the opposite direction. We are creating "rights" on the assembly line, utterly blind to the fact that, in the process, we are giving up the true rights whose affirmation by the Framers made America different, successful, and free.