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W. Williams Contributes to the Argument Store
09/26/2002

Walter Williams writes about the difference between rights and wishes. He makes a great point.

At least in the standard historical usage of the term, a right is something that exists simultaneously among people. A right confers no obligation on another. For example, the right to free speech is something we all possess. My right to free speech imposes no obligation upon another except that of non-interference. Similarly, I have a right to travel freely. That right imposes no obligation upon another except that of non-interference.

Contrast those rights to the supposed right to decent housing or medical care. Those supposed rights do confer obligations upon others. There is no Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy. If you don't have money to pay for decent housing or medical services, and the government gives you a right to those services, where do you think the money comes from?

He suggests that the housing/wage/healthcare "rights" are equivalent to suggesting that, under "free speech," one has a right to "an auditorium, microphone and audience." Those who erroneously appeal to "rights" in this way might suggest that these examples are enhancements to free speech and hardly equivalent to wanting a place to live. So, let's keep the analogy as close to the same level as possible: we would not have the right to government-supplied vocal chords, either. The right that we do have to housing/wage/healthcare is to not have the government take these things away from us.

Despite this distinction, as Williams suggests, categorizing such life necessities as "wishes" rather than "rights" does not mean that we shouldn't strive to supply them. It's the difference between a donation and a tax. At the level of basic housing needs, the distinction may seem unnecessary... even selfish. But it is important to make it in order to head off "rights" creep. Many so-called "dissenters" have recently proven that they, in fact, do believe "an auditorium, microphone and audience" to be a right — at least for them.

In considering ways to bring the point home even to such people, I thought that perhaps pointing out that the "right to life" does not equal the "right to immortality." Then I remembered the embryonic stem-cell debate and decided even that suggestion might be disputed.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 02:47 PM EST