Politicians are careless about promising positive rights and cynical about delivering them. Positive rights themselves, in turn, are absurdly expandable.The government gives me a right to get married. This shows I have a right to a good marriage, otherwise why bother giving it to me? My marriage is made a lot better by my children's right to day care, so the brats aren't in my face all day being deprived of their right to a nurturing developmental environment. Every child has the right to a happy childhood, so I have the right to happy children. Richer children are happier. Give me some of Angelina Jolie's.
The expense of all this makes politicians glad. They get to do the spending. Even negative rights aren't free. They entail a military, a constabulary, a judiciary, and a considerable expenditure of patience by our neighbors. But positive rights require no end of money, and money is the least of their cost. Every positive right means the transfer of goods and services from one group of citizens to another. The first group of citizens loses those goods and services, but all citizens lose the power that must be given to a political authority to enforce the transfer. Perhaps such transfers could be made voluntary. U.S. federal personal income tax receipts in 2008: $1,426,000,000,000.
U.S. charitable contributions in 2008: $307,700,000. Perhaps not.
When rights consist of special privileges and material benefits, rights kill freedom. Wrong rights are the source of political power. It's not freedom but power that is the central issue in politics. Only an idiot wouldn't have seen that. And I was one.
At least I wasn't alone. In the latter two-thirds of the twentieth century, most of us who involved ourselves in democratic politics claimed that freedom was what we were up to. We claimed it for more than fifty years, from the time of our defeat in the Spanish civil war until the embarrassing moment when those authoritarians Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher led us to victory in the cold war. Liberals, moderates, and even some conservatives considered the sweeping positive rights created by a half century of social welfare programs to be extensions of freedom, in the opportunity sense. People were being given the opportunity to, you know, not starve to death and stuff.
This wasn't an evil way of looking at things. And not all the programs were bad. But the electorate, the candidates, and we busybody pundits failed to properly scrutinize social welfare programs. It's not that we failed to examine whether the programs were needed or superfluous or well or poorly run. What we failed to look at was the enormous power being taken from persons and given to politics. We insisted on seeing politics through the lens of freedom, as if social legislation were a Polaroid print of quickly developing liberties. We listened only to the freedom track on the electoral stereo. We predicted the future of politics with a horoscope containing just the astrological sign Libra.