On My “Right” to Everything

We can approach political things from two angles: “What ought I to do?” or “What is owed to me?” The first approach entails that we acquire sufficient virtue to rule ourselves to do what objectively is worth doing. The second approach looks to someone else to supply what we cannot obtain or make for ourselves.

These alternatives rose to visibility in the riotous reaction to the Greek austerity legislation. In our recent elections, the same issues appeared. We do not rely on ourselves but on someone else. Such a principle is quickly politicized into the notion that government is responsible for me and everyone else. Thus, government defines my “rights” as measures of what it thinks man is. In lieu of higher law or reason, it brooks in practice no other source but itself as the origin of “rights.”

Unfortunately, many governments delight in conceiving themselves as the responsible organ for everything and everyone. The more people depend on the government, the more secure it is in its own power and longevity. What is the origin of this citizen willingness to cede to the government the responsibility for defining and supplying our “rights?” Several components are pertinent.

The first source is Hobbes on “rights.” Every individual has a “right” to everything he wants and needs. Of course, this situation can produce nasty conflicts. We come to blows when we all want the same scarce things. We fight it out. This “war of all against all” just makes things worse. Finally, we agree to appoint someone stronger than we are, who will prevent our mutual clashes for what we need.

Since we all fear “violent” death, we empower the state to define and arrange what we receive. Theoretically, this mechanism leaves us in peace to produce more of the goods that we need.

The all-powerful state convinces itself that it can take care of everyone by neutralizing each person’s power to obtain whatever he wants. We replace it with whatever the state will give. The “cost” is that we cannot hold ideas and beliefs. They are the real causes of our struggles with one another. The price of peace is state control of ideas and religion.

The second origin of “rights” is a secularized version of Christianity. We hear of “preferential options for the poor.” Government is to be a “servant” of all. Charity deals with cases that society cannot handle. Everyone is concerned with everyone else.

         The War of all against all (The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya)

But we soon notice that ideas of caring for the poor, of service, and of charity gradually are subsumed by institutions of the state, which is pleased to have them. Even Christians begin to talk primarily of what the government must do for this or that segment of the population that cannot or will not care for itself.

Religious institutions that provide services that advance the common good become directly or indirectly financed by the state. The state has its own rules for the uses of its monies. People have a “right” to such things. Once they know that they have a “right,” they put two and two together.

They look at the state to supply their “rights.” Few care about how to supply what is demanded. They still “demand” them. The state thus understands itself as a mortal god, a supplier of “rights.” A certain almost mystical exhilaration is found in taking care of others, even all others. 

We try to balance these positions with “duty.” No “rights” can exist without corresponding “duties.” One problem with this approach is the Kantian notion of “duties.” If we ask, “Why are you helping me out?” and the answer is that “It is my ‘duty,’” we feel it has little to do with us. The “helper” is only dealing with himself and his “duties.”

What is missing in all of this rights-virtue-duties talk? It is not freedom, which could be part of the problem. If freedom is the pursuit of whatever we want, which was, for Aristotle, the formal element of a “democratic” form of government, we soon discover that we want everything.

We insist that we have a “right” to everything. By looking at what is owed to us, we become oblivious to what we need to do to provide for ourselves. We understand the common good as a distributive justice in which the state provides everything for us.

We need a conception of rights, virtue, duties, and freedom that enables us to care for ourselves. We need a conception of a limited state, whose purpose is not to do everything itself but to recognize arenas of responsibility in which individuals and groups are the main source of providing for themselves.

The democratic, all-caring state that provides all our “rights,” however we define them, is what we see emerging from the souls of our citizens.

My “right” to everything is not a pretty sight.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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