Bryan Griffin: What Is A Human Right?

Aug 14, 2019

With the 2020 election cycle in full swing, we’re going to be hearing more discussion of exactly what the American government owes to its citizens as a “human right.” Many politicians will make lofty promises of adding things to this precious list.

Democrats like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have stated that health care is a “human right” that should be afforded to every American, guaranteed by the government.

Senator Kamala Harris indicated in her candidacy announcement speech that education is a right.

Similarly, Senator Cory Booker has made public commentary about every Americans’ “right” to a job.

So, should these things be considered a human right?

In this context, if something were to be considered a human right in America, that would mean the federal government would be required to provide the thing or service to all Americans.

There’s no single set list of what is and what isn’t a human right. Each system of government decides this for itself. Many countries, especially those with the biggest government, are organized around a principle that human rights are what the government tells its citizens they are entitled to—and these rights can be revoked or altered according to government decision.

America, unique to our founding fathers’ vision for our country, laid out in its founding documents a number of rights that are not given by the government but rights that every human has that cannot be infringed upon by the government. These inalienable rights are the strongest types of rights—rights that we are born with, independent of what the government decides. This concept is also called natural rights.

In the Declaration of Independence our basic natural rights are enumerated as the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Within the Constitution and Bill of Rights, other rights are enumerated. These include the right to speak freely, assemble freely, and bear arms. Many of the other rights written into our founding document are rights that we have to not have the government do something to us. This includes a right not to have the government treat its citizens unequally in anything it does, a right to have the government not perform unreasonable searches and seizures, and a right to have the government not perform cruel and unusual punishment.

America has been as prosperous and free as it has been specifically because this is how we understand human rights. They are not granted by the government but owned and inseparable from the citizen--and human rights are rights to prevent the government from doing things to us. Not the other way around.

It is big government that historically perpetrates mass oppression, killing, discrimination, and evil. We have the right to be free of this. We should cherish the right to be free of this. We can’t maintain that right and continuously grant the government more unquestionable authority in our lives.

Now we come back to the left. They want to fundamentally transform the concept of a human right from prohibitions of what the government can do to us to goods and services that the government must give us, including healthcare, education, and our jobs.  There are two major problems with this line of thinking:

Most importantly, letting the government expand and add to our sacred list of rights gives them the sole ability to decide what these goods and services are. If healthcare is a right from government, only they would have the ultimate say as to what is and isn’t considered healthcare. As everyone’s healthcare needs inevitably vary, this can be incredibly dangerous. If education is a government right, then the government decides what is taught to our children and what constitutes a “good” education. Decisions about these vital components of each of our lives are wrested from our own hands and placed solely under the purview of the government.

Number two, nothing that requires the labor of others can be considered a human right without dire consequences. If people have a right to healthcare, that would mean services provided by a doctor. A right to education means a right to services provided by a teacher. If this is the case, then the government will necessarily have to force people to provide these services.

Ultimately, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t, as a society, continue to enjoy all of the rights prohibiting government from doing things to us and also tack on a new bevy of rights that force labor, complicity, and standards of quality completely out of our control.

And we shouldn’t want that. There is value to having recourse. When the market primarily provides these things, the consumer gets to choose quantity, quality, standards, and feedback. When the government primarily provides these things, the citizen has little to no individual ability to affect or decide what they will receive.

These things—affordable healthcare, quality education, desirable jobs—are goals of society. We can and should all work voluntarily (through the market, charities, and sensible local government) to make these things obtainable for all of our fellow citizens. However, the push to transform these things from societal goals to rights is nothing more than a government grab for power.

Don’t let this power grab disguise itself in the righteous-sounding cloak of “human rights.” It’s a means to an end where some of the most important decisions in our lives are no longer our own.

Bryan Griffin of the London Center for Policy Research is a lawyer and author who specializes in American policy in the Middle East.

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