Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Rights and Entitlements

Every functioning government -- from county to federal -- provides some measure of services to the public in addition to security.

Citizens give up property, generally in the form of taxes, to finance these services. The most vehement of libertarians will argue that the government should not get involved in service delivery, but it is rather simple to understand why a government does so. An individual can build a driveway to his mailbox, but isn't going to finance a modern road of any consequence. Nor will corporations finance the volume of roadways necessary to create a functional modern society. It must be collective action in the form of government. And this is just one example.

There is an entire body of law that governs collection and spending of revenue for the public good, and from a policy standpoint, you can debate the relative merit of every government program. But the systems are established in public law, and are therefor legitimate...though frequently wasteful and inefficent.

The hazard for the American public is not that government programs exist, but in the rhetoric that claims such programs must exist. This is the road that generates misguided statements like Americans have a "right to healthcare." The advocate makes this claim to undermine the debate over the merit of government funded healthcare, implying that there is some ordained or natural human right to get treatment for illness, and that government must establish programs to enforce this natural (rather than electoral) mandate.

In a state of natural liberty, this is obviously not so. Healthcare is a human invention -- we are not born into it anymore than we are homeowner's insurance. Healthcare qualifies not as a right, but as a potential "entitlement." Through the legislative process, government decides that citizens (and in some cases any person in the US) should be provided a service or payment, and finances its distribution. This is elective public policy that can be established, extended, and hopefully reduced or eliminated as required, though the last seems a rarity. The law may entitle you to the service, but there is no "right" to it, except as determined by law.

In the case of entitlements, the only "right" involved is Equal Protection -- that once passed, the law applies equally to all people. This establishes that the laws creating entitlements are general to all people, even when providing different levels of entitlement based on criteria (income, age, family size, etc.) Civil Rights govern the application of entitlement law -- they do not justify it.

When a politician states that people have a "right" to any entitlement, hold onto your wallet. Entitlements should be considered according to their costs and benefits, not as gifts of nature.

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