Rights And Privileges

Last spring I wrote a brief post called Golden Mean, reproduced below in full:

If you look at any vigorous society in its prime, you see a healthy balance between rights and privileges. When either grows too much at the expense of the other, a nation declines: on the one hand toward impotent mediocrity, on the other into tyranny.

In the first prong of this aphorism I was not talking about ‘negative’ rights, of the sort found in the Constitution, which boil down to particular variants of a more general right not to be interfered with by the government. I had in mind ‘positive’ rights — rights to goods that require expense and effort to provide — which necessarily involve a positive compulsion on someone’s part to provide them, effectively indenturing one segment of society to another. As more and more of these goods become mere entitlements, rather than rewards to be earned by productive labor, the burden upon the productive segment of society increases, even as that segment dwindles — and the nation sags toward impotent mediocrity.

Privileges, on the other hand, are by definition blessings that are granted from the seat of power to those who seek them. It is always and everywhere a hallmark of tyranny that all rights, even negative rights, become privileges granted at the whim of the tyrant.

It has become a talking point in this election season that in the name of “fairness”, the well-to-do must pay more to the government for the “privilege” of being American. The latest prominent official to make this argument was the Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, in an interview last week.

In an opinion piece published today at the Wall Street Journal, former Federal Reserve governor Lawrence Lindsay pushes back. Read it here.

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