In society, rights and duties are an inseparable pair. When you break the bond, untenable outcomes appear.
On August 20, the National Post ran this story on Page 1, below the fold in an editorial attempt to assign priority.
Panhandlers face daunting challenges. Few of us would be able to tolerate the life, even out of desperation. Others might find it interesting. Extroverts need people and I suppose you would meet quite a few interesting people in a day. The reality is that not all those you meet will treat you with respect, nor even civility.
The union idea is the age old way of applying for better treatment. You can be mean to one person, but not to all of us. The childhood idea of, “You fight me, you fight my gang.” Within limits that can and should work.
It will not work where the claimant wants a preferential treatment.
The ability to participate in a group with common interests and goals is useful to all of us. The question of whether it makes sense for panhandlers to unionize in the hope of improving their lot is difficult. In the sense of collective action it may. In the sense of benefiting all of society, as many early unions did, it is unlikely.
Rights are a difficult subject for many. I think in simple terms, so if you claim a right that only others can supply for you, then you have a preference not a right. The rights that I think are truly rights are all negative. Others may not stop me from doing something. I can say what I want, believe what I want, own and keep what I want, and to meet with others of my choosing. The government cannot deny me those rights, but they do not have to make them easier for me either.
If I claim a right to something where others must do something, then I must, in the process, be denying them some right. In the panhandler case, the right to be left alone, to keep their money, to not block access to the store.
Rights are two-sided. With each right comes a duty to find the interface between people. Your right to swing your fist any way you want is not mine to deny, except that your right to do so stops an inch from my body.
Intersecting, conflicting rights are a problem. Each of us has a duty to find a place where the conflict resolves. Unions are a way but only if they recognize the rights others hold in the interaction. Windsor panhandlers automatically have the same rights others have, but seem to want additional treatment that requires society to change its values.
Could happen, but society may not be better for it.
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Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.