It is my right to say whatever I wish to you. I’m privileged to have this forum in which to do it. Get the difference?
A lot of people don’t get the difference and, unfortunately, many of them are legislators. Understanding the difference between rights and privileges is critical for citizens trying to live under the law in a free society, and far too many lawmakers spend most of their energy trying to blur the distinction between the two.
Consider a couple of proposals in our own little laboratory of democracy, the Indiana General Assembly.
Rep. Chris Campbell, D-Lafayette, wants to allow illegal (or, if you prefer, undocumented) immigrants to drive on the state’s roads and get insurance for their vehicles. Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears agrees, saying it is “not a legal issue” but a “human rights issue” and “a human dignity issue.”
Driving is a privilege, not a right. Those granted the privilege have met certain conditions, such as being a citizen of a certain age, and agree to abide by certain requirements, such as obeying the rules of the road. But Campbell and Mears want us to think of it as a right.
Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, wants to require Hoosiers to provide “safe storage” for any guns in their homes, and Sen. Jack Sandlin, R-Indianapolis, wants to allow retired law enforcement officers to carry guns in schools.
Bearing arms is a right, not a privilege. It’s acknowledged in the Bill of Rights, and the Supreme Court has affirmed that it applies to individuals. Stoops and Sandlin want to water it down to a privilege, Stoops setting a condition for its granting and Sandlin granting one group an exercise of it not allowed other groups.
“Granting” is the key word here.
Rights are not conferred by anyone, and they cannot be taken away or altered by anyone. They are inherent. Call them natural or God-given, depending on your metaphysical inclination, they belong to all of us equally, simply by virtue of the fact that we are human. Properly understood, the Constitution does not exist to give us our rights, but to protect the rights we are born with.
Privileges, on the other hand, do not belong to all. They are given to some and withheld from others. They are always conditional, subject to change or outright removal by those in authority controlling them. They are unequal by nature, some people always having more and some less. And often, a privilege involves actually taking something from one group and giving it to another.
It is, unfortunately, far too easy to get rights and privileges mixed up. Though rights exist outside government and privileges within them, the reality still is that rights cannot exist without government. For a right to be meaningful, someone with authority and power must both recognize and honor that right. There are no rights in an anarchy.
And there is the loophole our legislators use to happily mix and match rights and privileges, replacing one with the other however it suits them in a given case. Doing either is a way to increase legislators’ sense of well-being. They have sworn to serve the public but know deep down that it needs the enlightened guidance only they can provide.
Eroding a right into a privilege opens the door for the bureaucrats and lawyers of the administrative state to add unfathomable nuances and incalculable exceptions to the maze of rules lesser mortals must navigate. Pretending a privilege is a right allows officials to pit group against group, elevating some groups to favored status and downgrading others to a lower class.
Either way, the individual citizen is diminished, which is the point.
I remember a phrase from the Army that will be familiar to anyone who has served in the military: Rank has its privilege. It was always uttered with the contempt that sprang from unrelieved cynicism. We all wore the same uniform, followed the same regulations, had the same obligations. Except, of course, the officers who ignored the rules because they knew they could.
George Orwell said it most memorably. You remember: All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. No way to run a republic.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.