"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

Rights Gone Wrong

I am beginning to think rights are overrated. Now, before you label me a fascist, let me explain. A few minutes into President Obama’s second inaugural address he stated:
What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.
Initially, this crowd-pleasing declaration seemed uncontroversial, non-partisan and honorably patriotic. Of course, it was largely an excerpt from one of our country’s most important founding documents. Yet upon further reflection, the implications of such a statement came to mind. What exactly are those unalienable rights? And whose job is it to bridge the meaning of them with reality? The answers to these questions determine a great deal about one’s political ideology, especially concerning the proper scope of government. For classical liberals, like John Locke, rights were fairly limited, including the fundamental protections of life, liberty and property. For these thinkers, having rights did not mean that the government was expected to provide healthcare, education or a prosperous retirement for its citizens. But fast-forward a few hundred years and you will find that the list of “unalienable rights” has grown exponentially. For example, the UN’s 1976 Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ensures everyone’s right to, “a decent living for themselves and their families,” as well as, “rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay, as well as remuneration for public holidays.” Clearly these are good things, but should they really be rights? Sure, we want all people to be employed, to make a decent living and to have time for rest. But since when are these things guaranteed, rather than earned? The size and scope of government has grown immensely as the definition of rights has become more extensive—and more vague. Why has this shift occurred? Partly, it is because human beings easily fall victim to the tendencies of greed and selfishness. Once life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are secured, we want more. As a result, rights have become a concept entrenched in possessiveness and individualism. Instead of being thankful for the precious freedoms and opportunities we are privileged to enjoy as Americans, we begin to expect much more. And it always ends up being the government’s job to provide. Perhaps speaking in terms of rights is simply unwise—no offense to Mr. Jefferson. Is there an alternative? I suggest that we speak in terms of obligations instead. As with rights, it is absolutely true that humans, based on a natural, God-created law, are meant to treat each other in a certain moral way. But far better than saying I have a right to a particular kind of treatment, is to say that I am personally obligated to treat others in that way. The end result is that I am treated as though I do have rights, but my perspective is much healthier, because the focus is on others, not myself. No longer is it about what I deserve, but about what I owe to others. And turns out, God created us in a way that we owe much to one another: respect, kindness, love and compassion, among other things. In some ways, John F. Kennedy got it right. “[A]sk not what your country can do for you… ask what you can do for your fellow countrymen.” For the last half-century, we have in many ways ignored the personal responsibility to care for others, which has allowed opportune politicians to step in with bold promises enabling the government to pick up our slack. But as Nick Eberstadt and others show, this back-up plan is unsustainable—and undesirable. Taking care of those who are underprivileged, sick, disabled or elderly is the duty of not only willing and loving, but obliged family, friends, communities and churches. This is true not merely because it is the way God created us to be, but thankfully because he created us wisely; care for the needy is more effectively administered through personal relationships than by government bureaucracies. The growing welfare state in America is ineffective and fiscally irresponsible, which is why individuals and communities desperately need to take its place. Not just by choice, but by obligation. All that being said, let me qualify my argument in a few places. Practically, when speaking about the government, we speak in terms of rights because it is conceptually helpful for ensuring that people are protected in fundamental ways. In addition, government must provide for those who are needy at a basic, minimal level, until society fills its proper role. While there is no quick fix for broad societal reform, putting the spotlight on obligations rather than rights may be a useful start.