Monday, January 14, 2008

Rights and privileges

What are a citizen's "rights"? Some, what many would think the most basic human rights, are set forth in our Constitution. But those rights are primarily legal, and primarily defensive--what cannot be done to citizens by governments.

Beyond those, there is a collection of further privileges that each have a varying status as an arguable "right". In essence, political history is the story of the evolution of privileges into rights. Education is an example: it was not at all so long ago that receiving an education of any sort was sheer privilege, available only to those who could pay for it. Today, free universal education at least through adolescence is a bedrock of policy in all first-world nations, and most of the rest as well.

Broadly speaking, it is rarely a question of whether a given privilege "should" be a right:
few would have issues with an Edenic paradise in which all things are freely available to all persons (with the usual caveat that nothing done by one materially harms an unwilling other). Rather, a privilege evolves into a right as a society becomes wealthy enough to be able to support its availability as universal.

America is certainly a wealthy nation, but its wealth is distributed far more unevenly than is the case with most or all comparably wealthy societies. If we undertook some radical communistic redistribution of wealth, there are doubtless many current privileges that might become "rights", down to a new car every year. But that is not how things work, nor should it be.

Rather, every society makes a collective determination of how much wealth it is reasonable and fair to take from the most wealthy to fund universal availability of certain things. That is not simply "robbing the rich"; it is reasonable to hold that the reason they are rich is that the society in which they live has made it possible for them to become so, and that in consequence they have a certain responsibility to assist that society in some proportion to the benefit they have received from it. If you want to think of it another way, it is a sort of debt repayment: society was funded by one's ancestors for one's benefit, so--having taken advantage of that funding--one owes a debt to future generations for the benefits one has received.

A surprising fraction of the very wealthy, even in this perhaps greediest nation among all in the first world, are willing to pay more in taxes than they do now, and they have said so (consider Warren Buffett or Ted Turner). This is not an argument about how we should tax--I've been there and will be again, but not now--it is a discussion of how societies think about creating and funding "rights". The obstacle to making a few more things that are currently privileges into rights is a hard core--one which will exist in any society but is unusually large and unusually vehement in its selfishness in this nation--of the highly wealthy that objects to giving one thin dime for the betterment of its fellow beings.

It is hard to credit that in a nation with the collective wealth of the United States, getting necessary medical care is still a privilege, not a right. The recent report documenting the 100,000-plus annual deaths in this country that would not have occurred had their victims lived in some other first-world nation--probably any other such nation--seems to have been swallowed without even a burp. It's "just the way things are". Is there no longer any such thing as shame?

I mean we're not talking here about a college education, which might or might not be needful as a basic right (it would be less so did our pre-college schooling system do something approximating its nominal job). We're talking about the right to stay alive, and in reasonably good health. Not every last medical procedure can be available to every last person: we haven't yet managed to control costs sufficiently. But the commonplaces of decent care ought to be, in a nation this rich, possibly the highest priority available.

It is an interesting point that not a few economists and other researchers have reckoned that most successful and wealthy people became so not through some great or special skill, but by sheer good fortune (something I have maintained for many years). After the fact, when they have achieved their successes, it is easy for them and us to look back down their paths and see all the correct decisions they made, and attribute their achievements to the wisdom or courage they exhibited in making those choices. But in almost all cases, if we examine those decisions critically in light of what was known at the time, they will be more like dice rolls than reasonable choices.
We need a national dialogue about what we as a wealthy society believe people are entitled to merely by fact of being human, of being our fellow citizens. The greed line about sapping will and incentive and all the rest of the familiar bullshit has to be seen for the smoke screen it is. There are limits on what we can do, and on what we should do. But those limits are plainly higher than what we have now. We need to decide, as a nation, what a "right" is.

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