THE BLOG
02/28/2013 09:22 am ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Rights Are Not Entitlements

As Americans discuss our system of social supports, we constantly hear the word "entitlements" and rarely the word "rights." Of course, in America the word "entitlements" is not a neutral word. Rather, it is a loaded word, laced with specific attitudes and associations in both the speaker's mouths and listener's ears.

Instead of repeating facts about how America's system of social supports is substantially smaller than nearly every other wealthy democratic country or the simple fact that America is the wealthiest country in the history of the world, it is important to pause to think about the concept of human rights.

A good starting point for thinking about human rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a declaration authored by a number of international delegates (including former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt) and adopted by the United States and other members of the United Nations in 1948. This document builds on other declarations of human rights that have occurred in the past including our own Declaration of Independence's statement of the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

In our era of drone strikes without a judicial process, it is important to point out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him."

In our era of for-profit prisons pushing legislation to increase America's already world-leading incarceration rates even higher, our era of prison gerrymandering and prison labor, it is important to point out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude."

In our era of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, it is important to point out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile."

In our era of attempts to slash support for the unemployment and aggressive attempts to dismantle the rights of labor to organize, it is important to point out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment."

In our era of attacks on America's already minimal social security system, it is important to point out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Everyone has the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."

There was a time when our nation eloquently wrote and spoke in support of the basic rights of humans yet we have consistently abandoned those words, time after time, action after action, century after century.

Often when someone suggests that America needs to slash "entitlements," I find myself asking two simple questions, "What are the most fundamental human rights and what role should governments play in guaranteeing those fundamental human rights?" After all, fundamental human rights are not items that legislation should be able to give and take away with the stroke of a pen or the barrel of a gun.

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