Rights, Privileges, Franklin Roosevelt, and an Unfinished Revolution
By Richard Girard
"What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god--the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!"--William Shakespeare; Hamlet, act 2, scene 2.
In previous OpEdNews articles, I have discussed whether human beings have rights: innate powers of self-determination and individual expression, which are limited only by their potential to harm other human beings now and in the future, and where these rights come from (Rights, Powers, Privileges, and Responsibilities, among others)? If these rights exist, what is their source, are they limited in number and scope, or are they potentially unlimited and changing in number, scope, meaning and application over time (See especially The Tao of Government, Right is Wrong, The Ghost of Ancient Hellas, and The Communist Takeover of America )? Finally, is there a difference between a right and a privilege?
There are too many people today who think that what rights they have are absolute, or nearly so: that unless their actions represent a clear and present danger to others, they should be permitted to do as they desire. This is especially true in the economic sphere where "caveat emptor"--let the buyer beware for the majority of you who think Latin is a musical style--seems to be the sole limitation that many business people desire to be saddled with.
The problem with such a short-sighted view of harm can be seen in examples of disasters and near-disasters such as: the harm to children caused by lead poisoning from tetraethyl lead in gasoline and the lead in pre-1978 paints; the various EPA "Superfund" pollution sites; the multitude of near-disasters involving our strategic nuclear forces during the Cold War, as well as the damage to the environment by nuclear weapons plants like Rocky Flats here in Colorado and Hanford in Washington state. Avarice, the desire for wealth for it's own sake, is a form of evil as well as a mental illness. It is when a human being's selfish desire for a thing for its own sake is exalted in both its utilitarian and abstract value above the value of living things, especially other human beings.
There are also individuals who believe that their rights--in particular property rights--are somehow superior to the non-property rights possessed by the rest of us. For these individuals, somehow taxation is theft, rather than the duty and responsibility they have as a member of society to the rest of us. We cannot as individuals avoid the payment of taxes, simply because we will never use the services those taxes provide, or disagree with the use that those taxes are providing for other members of the public.
You may be fortunate enough to never need unemployment insurance, or food stamps, or public housing, or Medicaid, or even Social Security. They are there just in case you do need them, should tragedy or misfortune befall you or your family. They are part of a system of "social insurance" started by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930's. This system of social insurance reached its pinnacle under President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960"s, but it was never as extensive or inclusive as the systems of the other Western democracies. The so-called "Reagan Revolution"--really a counter-revolution in response to the New Deal and the Great Society--began the destruction of this social safety net in the 1980's. This has created a series of gaps in the social safety net's coverage that you could drive a semi-truck through sideways thirty years later.
There are those on the Right who like to call programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid "entitlements," which is a fancy way of saying privileges. These heartless trolls like to include everything from Federal funding for education to farm subsidies to unemployment to food stamps to student loans under the wildly inaccurate descriptive term "entitlements." In their eyes, these programs are nothing more than undeserved privileges extended to the poor, working and middle-classes--more than 75 percent of the American electorate--as an inducement to vote for the 'spendthrift" Democrats rather than the politically conservative, "fiscally responsible" Republicans. In reality, these programs are "social" insurance policies, carried by the Federal government, to protect us against unforeseen disaster in our lives.
This is the difference between right and privilege: if something is required for our basic existence, to have the hope of something approaching an even chance to succeed and live our lives to our maximum potential, in other words, if it is needed for "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," it is a right. If, on the other hand, it is something that we desire, something that will give us an advantage over our fellow citizens, rather than fulfill a basic requirement for a life, it is a privilege. By this definition, health care is a right; wealth is a privilege.
Of course, today's GOP never mentions the many entitlements that it is in favor of: acquiring Federal flood insurance coverage after the fact; $243 billion dollars in indirect subsidies to the nation's "fast food" industry; the low wages and poor benefits given to their employees by Wal-Mart cost the American taxpayer between $900,000 and $1.75 million dollars per store; the average American family is paying $6000 dollars annually (approximately $690 billion dollars) in total subsidies to all American corporations. All of this while corporate profits are at an all-time high, and wages are at an all-time low, according to Henry Blodget at Business Insider.
Nor are corporations alone the sole recipients of this government largesse, as Richard Eskow, Paul Bucheit, Robert Reich, Henry A. Giroux, and Dave Johnson--among others--have pointed out. From the Bush tax cuts to tax laws that allow billions of dollars of the wealthiest individual American taxpayer's money to be held offshore untaxed. The wealthiest Americans are the ones who have seen the lion's share of the benefits over the last thirty years of Reagan's voodoo, his so-called "supply-side" economics.
Ariana Huffington is correct when she states that we live in an era of socialism for the rich, and the worst sort of dog-eat-dog, laissez-faire capitalism for the rest of us. The direct and indirect subsidies that the wealthiest Americans and their corporate proxies get from the government, they believe they have as a "right;" what the rest of us get are entitlements: privileges that may be taken away whenever it has become too expensive, inconvenient, or we haven't been "good boys and girls," i.e., subservient lapdogs to the plutocrats' dark desires.
The 1787 Constitutional Convention viewed the central government as the best means of protecting individuals--especially individuals of different states--from having their rights violated by any state (including their own) or local governments. As James Madison, in The Federalist Papers, No. 10, stated [My amplifications in brackets]:
"Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our [state--RJG] governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that [political] measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority. However anxiously we may wish that these complaints had no foundation, the evidence of known facts will not permit us to deny that they are in some degree true. It will be found, indeed, on a candid review of our situation, that some of the distresses under which we labor have been erroneously charged on the operation of our governments; but it will be found, at the same time, that other causes will not alone account for many of our heaviest misfortunes; and, particularly, for that prevailing and increasing distrust of public engagements, and alarm for private rights, which are echoed from one end of the continent to the other. These must be chiefly, if not wholly, effects of the unsteadiness and injustice with which a factious spirit has tainted our public administrations." (Author's Note--The more things change, the more they remain the same.)
After defining what he meant by a faction, Madison continued: