Tag Archives: rights

Rights for Me, Not So Much for Thee….

There’s plenty of information available detailing America’s troubling economic inequality; just recently, for example, Salon Magazine ran an article highlighting numbers that showed “America’s busted priorities” and their contribution to that widening gap. They presented the numbers in a variety of ways, but the summary tells the tale:

The following are averages, which are skewed in the case of tax breaks and investment income, as a result of the excessive takings of the .1% and the .01%. Details of the calculations can be found  here.

$8,600 for each of the  Safety Net recipients

$14,600 for each of the  Social Security recipients

$27,333 for each of the  Pension recipients

$54,740 for each of the  Teachers

$200,000 for each of the  Tax Break recipients among the richest 1%

$500,000 for each of the  Investment Income recipients among the richest 1%

The super-rich feel they deserve all the tax breaks and the accumulation of wealth from the productivity of others. This is the true threat of entitlement.

A recent investigative report from the New York Times confirms the suspicion that Salon’s numbers are not the result of inadvertence or accident. The subhead pretty much says it all: “The very richest are able to quietly shape tax policy that will allow them to shield billions in income.”

These numbers tell an important story, but they don’t tell the whole story: economic inequality both leads to–and results from–other kinds of inequality. It’s a vicious cycle.

Less affluent neighborhoods are less safe. Schools attended by poorer children have fewer resources and poorer results. Friends and relatives of poor Americans are unlikely to benefit from the networking that the more affluent use to find job opportunities. Access to quality healthcare remains unequal even after Obamacare.

Actually, what is even more troubling than these  persistent inequities has been the hysterical resistance to Obamacare’s very modest effort to extend health care to poorer Americans. A substantial portion of the public has responded to the Affordable Care Act with hostility and a truly unhinged animus. The assault has not focused upon reasoned concerns about aspects of the law; instead, opponents have indignantly rejected the very suggestion that access to healthcare might be a human right, or at the very least, a primary good that government should provide.

It isn’t only efforts to equalize access to healthcare that have met with hostility. Increasingly, we see  substantial support for unequal rights in other areas:

Americans place a higher priority on preserving the religious freedom of Christians than for other faith groups, ranking Muslims as the least deserving of the protections, according to a new survey.

Solid majorities said it was extremely or very important for the U.S. to uphold religious freedom in general. However, the percentages varied dramatically when respondents were asked about specific faith traditions, according to a poll by The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

This reluctance to understand that rights are different from privileges—this inability to understand that no one really has rights if government gets to decide who gets them and who doesn’t—reminded me of Nat Hentoff’s 1992 book “Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee.” If there is one area in which equality is supremely important, it’s equality before the law–and contrary to what too many Americans seem to believe, equality is not a zero-sum game.

There’s a significant “chicken and egg” component to these various manifestations of inequality—which comes first, economic deprivation or reduced social efficacy? We may not be able to answer that question, but surely we can figure out a way to break the cycle.



Random Thoughts Post-Boston

Random observations, in no particular order…

Anyone can buy a pressure cooker, but the Boston bombers also killed with guns. Wonder where they got them? Internet? Gun show? As a friend of mine has noted, we demand background checks to buy Sudafed, but not guns.

The right to vote is at least as important as the right to own a firearm, but the same people who are so protective of the Constitution and the  2d Amendment seem to have no problem requiring documentation in order to vote. Yet in-person vote fraud is virtually non-existent, while gun violence perpetrated by felons and paranoids is epidemic.

Speaking of self-appointed guardians of (selective) constitutional rights, it hasn’t taken long for many of them (yes, Lindsey Graham, I’m looking at YOU) to advocate immediate retribution against the Boston bombers in defiance of both the Constitution and the rule of law. Amazing how quickly the same people who indignantly wrap themselves in the Constitution when they perceive a threat to their rights are willing to resort to mob rule when someone else’s rights are at issue.

Finally, for all you War on Terror types: the horrific attack at the Boston Marathon was treated as a crime, and the perpetrators were promptly apprehended. Random acts of carnage, whatever the motives of those responsible, are criminal acts. The perpetrators are criminals, not “warriors.”

A Widespread Misunderstanding

A recent comment posted to this blog demonstrates a widespread–and pernicious–misunderstanding of the role of the U.S. Constitution. The commenter demanded to know where there was any reference to healthcare in the constitution.

The answer, of course, is that no such reference exists–just as there’s no reference to, say, smoking. Or marriage. Or the right to drive a car. Or the internet.

The constitution does not grant us rights. It limits the government’s right to infringe on those rights. The founders believed that we have certain “inalienable” rights by virtue of being human (hence “human rights”). Some believed those rights were “endowed by the Creator.” But Creator or no, those human rights preceded governments and their laws; the Bill of Rights was intended to constrain government from ignoring or invading them.

The bottom line is that government can pass laws and create programs that the legislature believes will advance the general welfare, so long as those laws and programs do not run afoul of the limits imposed by the document itself, or by the Bill of Rights. We are all free to disagree about the wisdom of government’s policy choices; we are equally free to debate whether, in close cases, government has crossed the lines established by the constitution.

But when we look to the language of our constituent documents for permission–when we view government as the source of our rights–we betray a fundamental misconception of the role of government and law in these United States.