In response to events in Egypt, President Obama said , “I call upon the Egyptian government to reverse the actions that they’ve taken to interfere with access to the Internet, to cell phone service, and to social networks that do so much to connect people in the 21st Century.” In context, the President clearly implied that all people – Egyptian or American – have a right to the World Wide Web.
What is a right? What rights do Americans have and which ones are we denied?
In common parlance as well as the dictionary, the words right and entitlement are almost interchangeable. Functionally both here and in ‘old Europe,’ they have become identical. The U.S. Founding Fathers had quite a different intent.
A right is a “normative rule about what is allowed of people or owed to people, according to some legal system, social convention, or ethical theory.” You do not have to do anything or be anyone special to access such a right.
Americans (and hopefully Egyptians) have the right to free speech. You do not need to qualify for it, pay for it, or do anything to speak your mind freely. It is a right. All rights implicitly have constraints to act responsibly: they are not completely unlimited. Your free speech does not include the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. Your right to assemble does not allow you to gather a group of friends inside the oval office.
The first ten Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights , is a most revered compilation of fundamental rights of citizens. It is not a list of individual rights at all. It was couched quite intentionally by the Founding Fathers as a list of constraints on the Federal government.
Rights under the U.S. rule of law are all negative. They describe what someone cannot do rather than what someone is entitled to do or to have. The three most basic rights, inscribed in the Declaration of Independence, are of course “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” They do not entitle you to be alive, to live freely, and to pursue happiness. They require others – particularly the government – NOT to kill you, NOT to jail you, and NOT to stop you from seeking your bliss.
The Fifth Amendment – due process – reads: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury.” It says what the government can’t do rather than what you are entitled to or can do.
The Fourth Amendment does not guarantee your personal security. It merely protects you from “unreasonable search and seizure.”
The rightly famous First Amendment – the heart and soul of our nation – reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Your “freedom of speech” means the government does not have the right to silence you. According to President Obama, that includes your right to communicate with others such as via the Web. A ‘right to the Internet’ thus means the government cannot stop you from accessing the Internet.
Does your ‘right to the Internet’ include a right to own a computer in order to access the Internet? Of course not! Rights are always negative. Rights define what cannot be done to you or taken from you rather than what you can do or should have.
Do you have a right to good health? We all agree that people have a right to breathe clean air and drink clean water. However, the right to good health and therefore access to clean air and potable water is really a constraint on others not to pollute our air or water.
Does your right to good health extend to a right to the service called health care? The answer must be no for three reasons. Firstly, all rights are negative. Your right to good health is actually a rule preventing someone else from making you unhealthy.
Second, if health care were a right, another person has to provide that care. What if no one went to medical or nursing school? What if current providers refused to put up any longer with the disaster called the U.S. healthcare system and left the profession? What then happens to your “right to health care,” without nurses or doctors? Does your right to health care require that society indenture providers in order to guarantee service?
As stated above, your right to good health is actually a rule preventing someone else from making you unhealthy. You are entitled to make yourself unhealthy but then who should pay when you do so?
Finally, if health care is a right with no individual responsibility or accountability, then the responsibility for our health falls to the government. If that happens, the U.S. will die of terminal bloat due to an insupportably expensive government bureaucracy , and sickly, nonproductive bodies resulting from irresponsible lifestyle decisions.
Repeat to yourself: ALL RIGHTS ARE NEGATIVE. This mantra will clarify much of the confusion in a U.S. that has gone from the age of enlightenment to a time of entitlement.