A Question of “Rights”

Exactly what is a “right”?

The term gets used so much, and so misleadingly it seems, that it has lost any reasonable meaning.

Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialist who is running for president, seems to believe that everyone has a right to free healthcare, a free college education, and a list of many other things that his opponent would seemingly agree with. What set this post into motion was a commercial, by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, that to anyone with half a brain or a grasp of history would find as outright dishonest.

I came across the commercial on the radio while on the way home Sunday night from a run to the local Kentucky Fried Chicken. The ad set up three different scenarios: a disabled veteran, a same-sex couple, and an ethnic couple. The disabled veteran was unable to find a place to live that was wheelchair accessible. The same-sex couple was denied an place to live because of their proclivities, even though they had children. And the ethnic couple was denied because they were, well, of an ethnic minority. The advertisement stressed that denying these people a place to live is somehow a violation of their civil rights and that everyone has a right to a home.

My son, who has been in the military, immediately connected with the veteran’s predicament and offered a hearty, “Amen”; me, not so much.

The problem with saying that someone has a “right” to something somehow seems to imply that there is an inherent priority in it. We have seen this is the push to legalize and normalize same sex marriage (something that I’ve discussed here). No one has a “right to marry”, in the same sense that they have a right to speak freely, if they did, one could simply grab the first person that they are attracted to and marry them, but that’s not the case. Likewise, the freedom of speech is not absolute because you cannot make false statements with impunity. Freedom of speech regards only to true statements or unpopular positions. Likewise a “right to marry” says something about the fundamental nature of marriage and the purpose it serves.

Now, to the question: does everyone have a “right” to a place to live. If such were truly the case, then trespassing and vagrancy laws would be unnecessary. If someone has an inherent right to a place to live, then they could simply force their way into a building and set up housekeeping, because it would be an affirmative right. However, Thomas Jefferson, in penning the US Declaration of Independence, noted that there are only three inherent rights that are “endowed by [the] Creator”: the right to life, the right to liberty, and a right to pursue happiness, which was simply a synonym in that time for property.

No one has a right to it, they have a right to pursue it, and if they are fortunate enough to procure some, then their rights are secured in it as long as they can maintain it.

Now, that means that, if I am a property owner, I can do whatever is within my power and right on that property, I can build me a house and live in it, or I can build a business on it, which can include units for rent as dwellings. Now, as a property owner, if it was my desire to maximize the profitability of my efforts it could be a wise consideration to make such places so that they are open and accessible to the widest possible clientele, including the disabled, which is often through elevator or ground floor access with wide doors and a variety of subtle, yet not prohibitive facility considerations. However, while the government may have a legitimate reason to say how such a structure can be constructed for safety, that same government does not have the right to tell me who I can rent it to.

This fallacious belief that there are rights beyond what has been enumerated in the Constitution of the United States and the historical understanding that laid out those definitions, which limit the federal government and, under some circumstances, extend to the States, need to be understood else we allow the same government that is defining all of these “new” rights to take them from us in the same manner in which they are being bestowed.


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