Sunday, July 19, 2009

About "rights"

The article I posted the other day about health care myths made a point about rights that I've seen made elsewhere. In particular, his point #6

Myth #6 Health Care is A Right

Nope, it's not....

luckily it doesn't take a superb philosopher to understand that health care simply is not a "right" in the sense we normally use that word. Listing rights generally involves enumerating things you may do without interference (the right to free speech) or may not be done to you without your permission (illegal search and seizure, loud boy-band music in public spaces). They are protections, not gifts of material goods. Material goods and services must be taken from others, or provided by their labor, so if you believe you have an absolute right to them, and others don't choose to provide it to you, you then have a "right" to steal from them.

All well and good, but if you ever watch crime shows and listen to people being "read their [Miranda] rights", you'll hear, among other things:

...You have the right to speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense..."

That is giving the accused the right to the services of a highly trained professional. If someone is accused of a crime, he is guaranteed the right to the services of this professional, at no charge if he can't afford to pay, regardless of, among other things, public sentiment. Thus, Adolf Hitler, if he were tried in an American court, would have the right to the services of an attorney, paid for by you and me.

I think everyone reading this agrees this is as it should be, at least in principle.

But it seems to be an exception to the definition of rights given above.


I e-mailed the author with these thoughts, and got the following in response (quoted by permission):

Thank you for reading my piece and writing to me.

Your example of government provided attorneys is a very interesting one, probably the most interesting of the many comments I've received, and the one that had me the most befuddled. But ultimately I don't agree it's damning. First, it's not in the Constitution as you said but a court interpreted "right". That doesn't eliminate your point but makes it somewhat less foundational (the founders weren't handing out others material goods). More importantly, the government only provides this "good" when you are accused of a unproven crime and they are trying to take away your freedom. The material good is only useful to combat a larger government imposition. Seems to me like not a "net" giveaway. Also, for instance, they do not provide attorneys for civil cases, so clearly something different is going on here.

Again, I enjoyed thinking about that, it was a hard one!

- C

I think he has a very good response. At least it parallels my thoughts for why the right to legal counsel would be an exception to the general rule.

I'll have to remember to run that point past Walter Williams next time he uses that definition of "rights".

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