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The Confusion over Rights

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The fastest-growing federal programs are entitlements and transfer programs. These programs include Medicare, food stamps, housing assistance, and Social Security, among others. Transfer programs have risen from 15% of federal spending in 1953 to 20% in 1965, to almost 45% in 1992. Any serious attempt to control federal spending must begin with these programs.

Most Americans now believe that they have a fundamental right to affordable housing, medical care, equal opportunity, a job, a clean environment, and dozens of other desirable ends. Indeed, as we can observe from the dramatic increases in transfer payments, many of these “rights” have been enshrined in costly legislation and are now legal entitlements.

But are these entitlements really rights, and should federal taxpayers support these generous levels of funding? Certainly, affordable housing and medical care (as examples) are desirable ends; no one can deny that. But their status as fundamental human rights is doubtful for a number of reasons.

The primary reason for skepticism is economic. In a world of resource scarcity, not all desirable ends can be satisfied simultaneously. If society desires the production of more housing, it will generally have to produce less medical care, everything else being equal. If this is true, then it appears both confusing and dishonest to refer to affordable housing and medical care as fundamental rights.

It is also confusing for another reason. If you have a right to affordable housing, then presumably I have an obligation to supply it to you. If you have a right to reasonably priced medical care, then I have a duty to make such care available to you. This approach to rights appears to divide society into demanders with entitlements on the one side and suppliers with unchosen obligations on the other. But such an approach to rights appears incompatible with traditional notions of liberty and justice in America.

This commentary on specific entitlement rights does not mean that the concept of rights is entirely meaningless in a political context. Not at all. It simply means that we must define rights more carefully and in a manner that offends neither economic reality nor basic notions of liberty.

Take the First Amendment’s right of free speech. The traditional notion of that right is that the government must not restrain a person’s speech. The right is defined negatively, that is, the government must not interfere. The precise positive content of any given speech and the means of communication are left to the speaker.

Notice that the right of free speech is not an economic impossibility or a claim on anyone else’s wealth. There are no positive obligations on the rest of us to either listen to any speaker or to provide any speaker with podium or a newspaper column. The right to speak simply prohibits the state from interfering with a person’s use of his own property in communication.

Notice also what the right of free speech does not imply. It does not imply that communication is without cost, or that everyone has the same ability (power) to communicate ideas. It does not imply that you can claim the right of free speech in my house or with my money for causes that I oppose. Unlike so-called rights to a job or affordable housing, it does not impose any unchosen obligations on others. It simply requires that individuals be free from restraint.

From this perspective, medical care and housing are not really rights, and elimination of governmental programs that furnish them is not a violation of rights. Medical care and housing are scarce goods that must be produced efficiently and consumed intelligently. Individuals should be at liberty to produce and consume as much of them as they can-given their abilities and incomes. But to pretend that everyone is entitled legally to as much of these goods as they desire, regardless of ability and income, is politically dangerous and economically absurd.

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    Dr. Armentano is professor of economics at the University of Hartford, the author of "Antitrust and Monopoly" (Holmes and Meier, 1990), and a former member of the board of trustees of The Future of Freedom Foundation.