No Such Truths Are Self-Evident

Entitlement is the wrong framework for thinking about human rights. (To quote Frank Underwood in a completely different context, “Let me be clear: you are entitled to nothing.”) Human rights are not innate — they culminate from decisions that we make semi-collectively about the kind of government and society we want to have. I think this applies to the rights in America’s Bill of Rights and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as various more prosaic rights.

Stone columns at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. Photo by Jan.

For example, you do not “deserve” to earn a minimum wage simply by virtue of being born. However, if you are born in America and join the workforce at a certain point in time, our laws establish that you must be paid at least $7.25 per hour. This is a decision that we’ve made, although the process of getting there was complex. (To be clear, I do think having a minimum wage is good.)

Looking at human rights in this way enables a much more rational discussion about what we want our government to do. Instead of arguing about whether children are somehow innately entitled to education, a moral argument for which there is no logical basis, we discuss whether we want to live in a society of people who had the opportunity to learn how to read and do algebra. The second argument allows a discussion of tradeoffs — yes, not funding public schools is cheaper, but in the long run it’s terrible for the economy and everyone’s quality of life.

I must admit the possibility that this viewpoint is more obvious than I think, but I feel like conversations about politics often hinge on ideas about what people “deserve”, without going into how moral entitlements are defined and conferred.

The Lincoln Memorial at dusk, captured by Chip Griffin.

Immigration is another example. The right-wing “immigrants are stealing our jobs” narrative depends on a feeling of entitlement to jobs (and it’s no accident that workers with the least economically defensible employment make up a large portion of the GOP’s base, especially in the South). The impulse toward self-defense is understandable, but it’s built on an obfuscated attempt at a societal decision. Do we want to decide that everyone deserves a job? Is the government then responsible for providing them? Wouldn’t that take us even farther toward socialism — do we/I/you want that or no?

The left has a similarly ill-founded moral argument regarding immigration, one that I’m guilty of voicing. “Immigrants built this country, so we shouldn’t shut them out now!” The first clause is undoubtedly true, although it glosses over the devastation of indigenous populations and cultures, not to mention slavery, upon which America depended. Rhetoric always summarizes.

Anyway, the part I take issue with is “shouldn’t shut them out” — I agree with that, but I think we must be careful to interrogate the underlying decision. Are we deciding that America must have open borders — that the government is obliged to welcome and support any and all newcomers? If not, what limits do we want to put in place — are felons allowed? Convicted child molesters? Does it depend on the country of origin and the legal standards of the convicting country’s courts?

The man himself (in statue form) at the Lincoln Memorial. Photo by eglabe19.

Personally, I want a government that is obliged to provide healthcare to everyone, housing to anyone who asks for it, education to anyone who wants it, and asylum to anyone who seeks it. (Yes, anyone — I’m not okay with the downsides of the other approach.) I want a government that runs its own prisons entirely with public money, and runs a lot less of them.

But I have no illusions that my ideal country is the natural or morally “right” system — it is a collection of decisions that none of us can make on our own. If we don’t talk about the decision-making process openly, how can we make the wisest choices?

Originally published on my website.