Rights Talk

Over the past few decades, a huge tangle of rights has overgrown America's legal landscape. Today we have criminal rights, minority rights, women's rights, children's rights, gay rights, animal rights. The Supreme Court has even defined citizenship as "the right to have rights." It's a rights mentality gone out of control. Over the past few days, I've been talking about America's litigation explosion and its causes. Without a doubt, one of the major causes is this rights mentality. The classic conception of rights was simply the freedom to act by your conscience without interference. Take the Bill of Rights. Freedom of religion means Americans can worship without state interference. Freedom of speech means we can express our convictions without fear of a knock on the door. But in the 1960s, a new concept of rights arose: a right to receive benefits--like a job, medical treatment, a certain standard of living. I was working in government at the time, and I saw it in the very language we used. Where once we had spoken of government "grant" programs or "aid" programs, we now began speaking of "entitlement" programs. Suddenly, it wasn't just an act of compassion to help the poor, the sick, or the elderly. It was a right they were entitled to. Rights came to mean basic needs. Which, in turn, gave way to wishes. A Harvard law professor, in a new book called Rights Talk, says today people use the language of rights to give moral force to their personal desires. How does all this fuel the fires of litigation? Well, every right I claim imposes an obligation on someone else. If patients have a right to medical treatment, then doctors have an obligation to administer it. If criminals have a right to a lawyer, then the state has an obligation to supply one. If people have a right to financial security, then the government has an obligation to dole out welfare benefits. For each new right that is created, a whole network of laws and regulations is written to enforce the corresponding obligations. No wonder our courts are log-jammed with lawsuits. Notice the irony here. The old concept of rights was designed to limit state power--to define areas free from government interference. But the new concept of rights expands state power. It asks government to regulate all sorts of areas that were once private. And if that doesn't work, people can resort to another form of government power--the courts. Private contracts, private conversations, the most intimate details are fair game for scrutiny by the courts. The result: a larger and larger portion of our lives is exposed to government control--exactly what the old kind of rights were designed to prevent. The entitlement mentality is threatening the fundamental freedoms that were once the whole point of human rights. What a sad irony: As Americans demand more and more rights, we enjoy fewer and fewer freedoms. Christians should be calling their neighbors away from a selfish preoccupation with rights--reminding them that they also have responsibilities. It's the only way to save the fundamental freedoms that have made America a light to the world.


Chuck Colson


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