privilege, benefits, freedom, rights, health care, education, cost,

Privilege Vs. Rights: An Important Distinction

When I was in grade school, Mr. Dexter, the bus mechanic, gave a speech to us kids about proper bus safety and how if we didn’t comply, we wouldn’t be allowed the transport. He’d say with authority, “Riding the bus is a privilege, not a right”.

Now that I look back on it, I’d bet a lot of people these days would disagree with ol’ Dexter. They’d say that every child has a right to an education and that includes access to it. I don’t disagree with the sentiment that to educate is essential, but I do think it’s important that we understand the difference between a right and a privilege (or benefit.)

Recently, a Time Magazine commentary declared that paid sick days should be a right, and not a “benefit” as they are currently classified by employers. The author’s reasoning is that since paid sick days are not required to be offered by law, employers don’t offer them and workers are bringing the sick with them to work. This, I’m sure, is true. People can’t afford to miss work, so they go when they’re sick. I’ve done this myself. And his remedy to make compulsory compensation for sick time would have benefits.

[Of course it’s also true what this guy commented on another news site:

We got rid of our sick leave. If we offered 8 days per year, everyone was sick 8 days per year. When we lowered it down to 6, everyone was sick 6 days per year. Every employee was using them as extended vacations. So we eliminated them.

So first off we should appreciate that there are two sides to this: that legally requiring paid sick days would help–and it would be abused. Which side would outweigh the other would have to be determined. I’m not here to guess. But I am interested in the terminology.]

To most, a right is something that no one should be able to take from you. They are indisputable freedoms that are held untouchable with rare exception. I agree with this. And most of us appreciate our right to religion, speech, etc.–freedoms to do fundamental human activity.

Things change, though, when you enter into the realm of education, health care, wages, and other similar opportunities. The problem with declaring rights is these realms is that if they are held to the same standard as the right to express and worship as you wish, then what does this imply about poor countries that can’t afford K-12 education or health care for all? If these are rights, then all but the fewest richest countries are violating human rights. (Indeed, the author of the Time Magazine article deemed it “inhumane” to not force workers of offer paid sick leave.)

But rights aren’t dependent on wealth. Rights are universal.  And if you label things that cost money as rights, then you’re indicating that rights are something to be bought.

I assume that one who believes health care to be a right would give a pass to poor countries, but then where exactly does this “right” begin? Haiti would get a pass; America does not. If so, Haitian’s rights are fewer? (That’s not right.) If a right is determined by wealth, we’re not talking about rights anymore.  We’re talking about things that are very nice to have; that are required by law in some places. (This is what the author was getting at: to make this law. Okay, but don’t confuse that with a right. It’s confusing to me why he, a professor at Columbia University, wouldn’t understand this.) privilege, benefits, freedom, rights, health care, education, cost,

The other issue is that health care, education, and the like all require the cooperation of other people. So if it’s a child’s right to be educated and treated for chicken pox, then a government must force someone to provide it. And now we’re starting to chip away at a person’s individual freedom–that they are not the owner of their person, but the State is. That’s a problem. Rights are not dependent on the cooperation of others. Violations of our rights occur when we’re prevented to do the things we want, say what we want, believe in the God we want, etc.

Advocating for universal health care or paid sick days is one thing. Arguing that they should be mandatory is also a case to make. But misusing the term “right” by declaring any luxury you think all should have as one conjures up an ideology that is inaccurate.


to new plateaus,



3 Responses

  1. David McLaughlin

    The right to education is under the equal protection under the law aspect. Any edcuation offered is available to all equally. Riding a bus to school is not education. It is a courtesy offered the student and parents. The USSC has ruled in the past that students transported on public school buses were done so as a benefit to the child and not a benefit to the school. The public school district could withdraw that privilage at anytime. Budget cuts have decreased the areas districts provide busing for, including the very young students. It is a good starting place for the conversation. But busing is a privilage.

  2. Outstanding. This should be required reading and would be a great subject for class room discussion. I recall that riding the Nary School bus in the 50’s was an appreciated privilege and failure to appreciate that resulted in a mighty cold walk in deep snow.. Brandon, in his article, clearly and correctly defines some real dilemmas of our society of today. Continually moving “privileges” into the “rights” column will slow or stop (and reverse) when, as Margaret Thatcher said, you run out of other peoples money.

  3. Pingback : Privilege vs. Rights: an Important Distinction — The Good Men Project

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