upper waypoint

Rights and Right Nows

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

I don't agree with conservatives about much, but I do about this: sometimes we think we're entitled to things we can no longer afford. Our rights are, in truth, subject to our right nows. When times change, rights change. To reduce the deficit, we'll have to cut across the board, including entitlement programs.

Conservatives are, obviously, inconsistent about rights. Many cling with pitiable shortsightedness to their right to global supremacy, claiming that it's America's right to win, no matter what. Everyone has to adjust but us, by whom they mean them.

Still, among some deficit hawks like Wyoming's Alan Simpson, there's a sober sense that rights can become beyond our means, and when they do, rights have to be renegotiated.

That's the funny thing about rights. We think of them as permanent, as though they're all inalienable. But no right is inalienable. Rights are man-made priorities. They're pledges we make, ambitious, declared commitments to high aspirations.

We talk about God-given rights. If there is a god, which I doubt, judging by this world, God doesn't grant rights. If God granted rights He would enforce them with laws of nature.  Calling rights God-given may facilitate our work to uphold them, but it's still our work.


These days conservatives are headed toward a head-on collision with themselves over rights. Libertarian conservatives are against entitlements because we treat them as inalienable rights. Social conservatives consider it their inalienable right to keep marriage exclusive to heterosexuals. I don't envy them their collision, but to their advantage, they're great at ignoring the sound of their one clan clashing.

I side with the practical conservatives. Work to uphold priority rights, but admit that rights are negotiated. Rights are not acts of nature, but human commitments to work against nature, not God-given, but human commitments to offset acts of God.

Rights are our lines in the sand, but it's still sand.

With a Perspective, I'm Jeremy Sherman.

Jeremy Sherman is a professor of rhetoric at the University of San Francisco.

lower waypoint
next waypoint