According to the local newspaper, a recent all candidates debate unanimously held that housing is a right. I looked up the definition and found that there are many for this word. I selected the 19th at dictionary.com as being the relevant one for this discussion.
Rights, sometimes rights: that which is due to anyone by just claim, legal guarantees, moral principles, etc.
In the discussion of housing, “legal guarantees” seems to be the intended target. I suppose we will be required to give up taxes so some bureaucracy can build and probably maintain housing for people who have none. How much should we give up?
The question of “just claim” is problematic. I cannot see how that arises. Perhaps the brother’s keeper idea.
Do “moral principles” apply? Maybe but difficult.
First of all morality is contextual. One person’s moral principles are another person’s preferences and a third may be vehemently opposed. The right of free speech may be a moral principle in America, but a preference in India and a quick way to prison in Saudi Arabia. Can a right be a variable?
If we decide that at a certain place and time, there is a way to define a moral principle leading to a right, then we must distinguish between two kinds of rights. Call them positive and negative.
A negative right is one that says the government may not prevent me from doing something. Like free speech, or choice of religion, or to refuse to incriminate myself. No one needs to contribute to my enjoyment of the right, they must merely leave me alone.
In comparison, a positive right is one that I can invoke at the expense of others, usually the government. Given that I like others to do things for me, it seems unlikely that there would be any limit to what I might see my positive rights to be. Housing, minimum income, good health, flexible body, good hair, long life, cooperative children, pleasant parents, childcare, the list goes on forever.
Positive rights are problematic.
We can gain a little insight to housing if we ask questions. What housing? Some public housing has become an expensive quagmire. Do more of that? How spartan or how luxurious? Who pays for upkeep? What happens if it is abused? Is there a behaviour standard?
The general question becomes, can anyone possess, by positive right, the ability to compel someone else to give up something for their benefit? Economist Walter Williams seems to share my view, or maybe I share his.
What’s just, has been debated for centuries, but let me offer you my definition of social justice: I keep what I earn and you keep what you earn. Do you disagree? Well, then, tell me how much of what I earn belongs to you – and why?
A good question, worth 100 marks, on any final exam in Political Science.
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.