Chanting about rights can be the wrong way to go

The Occupy Philadelphia protesters are a motley crew of motley views.

Judging by their signs and chants, they do seem to agree on two points.

Health care is a right.

And having a job is a right.

Yeah, yeah, whatever.

Every political turn of mind has its typical pitfalls.

Some activists seem to think that if they declare some social or economic good to be a “right,” they’ve done something useful and profound.

Actually, talking about political goals in terms of rights has become a habit of the highly ineffective mind.

Understand, I’m not suggesting that increasing the supply of decent health care and jobs is an unworthy goal. To the contrary: It is core work for a just society.

But talking about such goals in the language of rights tends, I have noticed, to shut down critical thinking and useful debate, and to shoo away potential allies. Providing jobs and health care is hard, messy, practical work involving realism about money and politics. Chanting about rights is more a way of avoiding that work than beginning it.

It you believe you are claiming a sacred right, then you don’t feel any need to worry about other people’s viewpoints or interests. You have little patience for the hard work of democratic persuasion.

Ever since the great drama of the civil rights movement, where local democracy did indeed support evil and federal courts did indeed uphold the moral right, many Americans have been tempted to wrap their cause of the moment in the bright-line urgency of “rights” language.

And sometimes framing your desired outcome as a “right,” and hunting for a friendly judge to enforce it, works for a time. But this invites a fierce backlash at the polls, which often undoes much of the good accomplished through legal rulings.

Abortion, school funding, gay marriage – the story repeats itself depressingly. The net result is we now have a Supreme Court full of right-wing activists on fire to overturn decades of progressive precedents.

I sincerely doubt that chanting about jobs and health care as rights is going to find one person a job or a hospital bed.

These are problems of economics, not constitutional law. While capitalism is surely part of the problem, any attempt to fix the mess without inviting capitalism into the solution is doomed to fail.

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