Americans have always been passionate about their rights. Whether conservative or liberal, we vigorously assert and defend them when we debate national policies like health-care reform or extending unemployment benefits.
Unfortunately, the concept of "rights" is often poorly understood across the ideological spectrum. Some conflate rights with responsibilities. Others label any benefit they think people should have – from food stamps to mortgage relief – as a right. Both are dangerous tendencies, because they reverse the American understanding of the relationship between citizens and government. A muddied understanding of "rights" undermines the basis of our freedom.
In the Founders' vision, government's sole legitimate purpose is to protect our rights. The Declaration of Independence specifies two essential points we need to understand about our rights: (1) They are God-given; and (2) they are unalienable.
Divine authority is a stumbling block for some Americans, but the second point should be clear to all.
That our basic rights are unalienable means, simply and unequivocally: No person or group of persons, including government, is justified (or authorized: see the Fifth Amendment) in trespassing upon anyone's rights – that is, in taking life, liberty, or property from another – except via due process of law as a penalty for having harmed or violated someone else's life, liberty, or property. One person's rights end where another's begin. Nobody's rights trump anyone else's.
Under the influence of progressive and socialist ideas, the American right to not have somebody take his or her property has been corrupted and inverted. Now, people often claim a "right" to have certain things provided by others. One of the most famous examples of this inverted concept was President Franklin Roosevelt's "Economic Bill of Rights." In 1944, FDR asserted that Americans had a "right to a useful and remunerative job," "a decent home," "adequate medical care," and so on. Nobody objects to decent jobs, homes, health care, and education, but these good things can't be "rights." If one person has a legal right to have a home, then other people must be compelled to provide that home. That would violate those citizens' rights to their own liberty and property. "Rights" in FDR's sense negates "rights" in the Founders' sense.
Critics assert that we have become too "rights-centered" and that we need to strike a balance between rights and responsibilities. That's a bogus claim. First, our republic has always been rights-centered; we have a Bill of Rights, not a Bill of Responsibilities. Second, no mature adult denies that we have responsibilities. In fact, responsibilities are implicitly inherent in the rights-based vision of our Founders.
Citizens have at least three primary responsibilities in our constitutional, rights-based order: First, not to trespass on the rights of others; second, to provide for self and dependents; third, to provide some useful good or service to others in order to earn a living.
But don't we have a responsibility to help those who are in need? Yes, we ought to extend charity to our neighbors. This, however, is a moral responsibility, not a legal one. We are accountable to God, not to government, for our good works.
It makes no sense to say that those who work hard, are productive, and have savings, have a responsibility to provide for those who shirk that same responsibility. The American ideal is that we all have equal rights and responsibilities. Progressives and other social engineers, by contrast, believe that government should decide whose "rights" and "responsibilities" receive privileged treatment.
When politicians debate a new law, they consider purpose, price, and popularity. They must also consider consistency with the Bill of Rights. Future generations are counting on us to get our rights right.
Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College, which published a version of this piece.