Not too long ago I wrote a lengthy rant about “Political Correctness” and its perniciousness. At that top of that essay were several quotes about the importance of naming things properly. The problem of misnomers in legal and political language is more important than many would think. It deserves a few minutes of its own, quite apart from the many controversies over which we wrangle today.
At the heart of this survey is the most abused word in our legal-political lexicon: rights.
The word rights is abused both by overuse and by inaccurate conflations. Incredibly, the problem reaches all the way back to the Founding.
Catherine Drinker Bowen, in her masterpiece Miracle at Philadelphia, notes that during the Constitutional Convention there was much talk about rights – but not the rights of individual Americans. The chat concerned the “rights of states,” meaning the states that would become components of the United States of America. That phrasing was taken as a compact expression for the duties and powers reserved by the Constitution to the state governments and therefore denied to the federal government. Ever afterward, “states’ rights” was used to refer to those duties and powers.
But a right is neither a duty nor a power. A duty is the responsibility for some area of activity, assigned or relegated by a superior authority to a lesser entity. A power, legally speaking, is a grant that coercive force may be used, without penalty, in some context. A right is a principle of justice: the recognition that force and intimidation (i.e., coercion by threat) are morally disallowed in a certain context.
- Your “right to life” means that you cannot morally be killed or wounded.
- Your “right to liberty” means that you cannot morally be restricted from peaceably doing as you please.
- Your “property rights” mean that what you have peaceably acquired cannot morally be taken from you by force or fraud.
Only a real individual – a living, breathing human being – can have moral standing. Therefore only an individual can have rights. Governments cannot have rights because they are abstract entities: things whose solidity is illusory. They’re composed of rules observed and applied by a continually changing body of men: the “agents of the state.” In becoming such an agent, whether by election, appointment, or employment, an individual acquires duties, not new rights.
Without that separation, the individual’s relation to government becomes irremediably muddled.
Left-wing activists have profited greatly by misusing the word rights. Take for example their many cries for “the right to a living wage.” If we can leave aside for a moment the undefined conception of a “living wage,” the problem of this assertion as a “right” remains. What, after all, is being claimed here?
If you have a right to a “living wage” – for the sake of specificity, let’s set that at $15.00 per hour – then to deny you that amount would be unjust. But upon whose shoulders does this requirement rest? Under what conditions? Does the right come with any responsibilities attached? Suppose the claimant refuses to meet those responsibilities? And of course, the implication is that the claimant is employed. What if he isn’t? Does he still possess the right? Upon whose shoulders does it rest then?
It doesn’t work. It cannot be made to work. That’s in the nature of any “right” that asserts that someone else must provide the claimant with what he claims. But the word rights is so powerful that extracting it from the mouths of persons who want to claim a “right” to any arbitrary thing is a job for Hercules.
The significance of the term rights lies in its application to governments and their treatment of individuals within their jurisdiction. In the American conception, governments exist to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” But in doing those things, American governments are forbidden to trespass upon individuals’ rights. Individuals’ rights are moral boundaries that restrict the actions of governments in the performance of their Constitutionally assigned duties.
Here we encounter a still more perplexing aspect of rights talk: the strange, seemingly inextinguishable notion of a “right to vote.” Because American governments are partially populated by electoral processes – not purely democratic ones, as the backers of Hillary Clinton lament to their extreme sorrow – some persons must be accorded the power to participate in such processes. Note that persons accorded that power in Congressional and Senatorial elections in one state don’t possess it in another. Note that persons accorded that power in Congressional elections only possess it in the Congressional district in which they reside. Note also that non-adults, felons, and non-citizens don’t possess that power anywhere, even though every person in each of those categories possesses the rights to life, liberty, and peaceably acquired property, no matter his age, residence, or citizenship standing.
So what makes the vote a “right?”
Nothing. It isn’t one. It’s a privilege granted under conditions specified by the state. Strictly speaking, it’s a license to participate in certain of the state’s electoral processes. But to speak of it as a “right” creates a rhetorical opening the Left uses to rant about granting the vote to the underage, to felons, to non-citizens, even to illegal aliens.
As Rose Wilder Lane wrote in The Discovery of Freedom, no one is born with a ballot in his hand. Nor are any man’s real rights affected by whether or not he’s been licensed to vote in some Congressional district, some state, or in our national presidential elections. Those are protected by the immutable moral laws of the universe, written by God Himself into our natures, no matter where he may be.
There might be no more important simple change to our rhetoric than this: to insist that things go by their proper names. I see red when I hear someone say “undocumented immigrant.” If feel my blood pressure rise when some cretin rants about a “right to affordable housing.” Worst for my cheerful good nature (and beyond question the most beloved of both the political class and the Left) is the oft-heard statement about America being a “democracy,” which it is not. All these misnomers cry out for prompt and unsparing correction.
Confucius insisted that “what is necessary “ – the first and most important of all the tasks of a ruler – is “to rectify names.” Consider this tirade a first step toward that end.