My one in particular and I had an amazing date on Friday. We drove down to Denver to see a play called Grounded put on by the Boulder Ensemble Theater Company (BETC) – I plan to review it soon, but in the meantime, just buy tickets, it was amazing, thought-provoking, emotion inducing – everything good theater should be.
At dinner and during the drive down, my hubby and I had a great conversation about rights, privileges, social justice, supreme court rulings, equality, equity, freedom, American exceptionalism… You know, the usual romantic date night conversation.
As we were talking my husband put his hand on my knee and said, “I know I’m going into dangerous territory here, but… all of this assumes that we actually have a right to life, and I don’t think we do.”
“Exactly!” I shouted, loud enough to make the car swerve.
Because I’ve had this post, these thoughts swirling for weeks now.
The declaration of independence states that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It then goes on to say that the job of government is to secure these rights.
However, our founding fathers apparently found these rights to be so self-evident that as they crafted the constitution, they left them out entirely.
As I’ve been mulling this over – what would a true right to life look like – and my husband and I discussed it in the context of our larger conversation about individual rights and freedoms vs collective responsibility a few things stood out.
First, we clearly do not have a right to life. (And in case you’re new here – I am not using this phrase in any way that relates to unborn fetuses. I am talking about already living, full human beings.)
If we had a right to life then war would ALWAYS be a last resort. If we had a right to life then lethal force would always be a last resort. If we had a right to life then the justice system would not be able to take that right away no matter how terrible our previous behaviors. If we had a right to life, we would also have the right to end our own life on our own terms.
And… If we had a right to life, then the things that are required for life would also be ours by right.
What do I mean? What does a true right to life look like?
When I was a kid growing up my parents told me that humans require three things to live – Food, shelter and clothing.
I would add three more – water, education & health care.
So, if we truly have a right to life then all people would be guaranteed these things from birth until death. Without question.
Basic food, shelter, clothing, education and health care would all be provided and water would be something that people had access to for drinking, cleaning and agriculture long before any industry had bidding rights, or private company claimed bottling rights. And when drought hit, there would never be a question of who got the water, people or profit. People would ALWAYS win. In a recession, no city would be able to turn off its citizens’ water – because water is required for life, and their right to life would be protected by the government as is its job.
“Socialist! Commie! But who is going to pay for it?!?”
And this is the next place that the hubs and I went, because see, it turns out that capitalism and a right to life are inherently at odds with each other. If capitalism’s greatest good is dying with the most toys, then that pursuit of money trumps all else, including your fellow citizen’s rights to life.
When we claim that a private company has more right to profit than duty to its employees or community (ie; they do not have to pay a living wage, nor do they have to pay taxes to feed the coffers that supplement the poverty wages that they do offer) and hail them as infallible god-like “job creators” instead of labeling them the “takers” and “moochers” that they actually are, we are in truth saying that not all people have a right to life. That some people have more of a right to life than others – which is to say life is a privilege reserved for those who can game the system.
Now, I believe that someone who innovates and takes a risk and starts a business should be rewarded for that – but I don’t think that reward should come at the expense of everyone else.
I do not believe that your right to pursue money should come at the expense of my right to live.
But… I don’t think America is protecting my right to live anymore.
Now, I have lived in a socialist democracy before. It wasn’t perfect. No system run by humans ever will be. But there were some interesting differences.
I remember at first, coming as I did from the USA and being a bit of a Randroid at the time, that I thought what many people here in the USA think, “What a lot of moochers. What motivation does anyone have to do anything, to work, to strive, to create…”
But then… I opened my eyes a little and it turned out that yes, some people took more than they gave (see capitalism above for how this happens everywhere in every system) but all they got was basic food, clothing, shelter, education and health care for it. Nothing extravagant. Nothing that threatened the life or livelihood of their fellow citizens. AND… When I watched a little longer what I saw was that many of those people, I would even dare to say most of them, used that time when it looked like they were just taking to study a craft, learn a skill, hone a talent, pursue a dream, cultivate a passion and then… They gave back. With interest.
It turned out that when they trusted that their life was valued, it freed them up to pursue their happiness – which paid dividends when they succeeded.
What I see happening in America right now is that the takers are taking, and taking, and taking and fighting every effort to require them to give a little back, to pay into the pot either in fair wages, or taxes that would support their workers and communities, or health insurance benefits that would allow their employees to breathe a little bit. I hear phrases like “income redistribution” and “theft” and “involuntary taxation” and worse. I hear a lot of people saying that if someone wants a house/apartment, or healthy food, or basic clothing, or health care, or an education for their children, or WATER, they “should have…” done something more than get one or two full time jobs.
And that tells me that life in America has become a privilege – not a right. Not a right at all.
I remember when I worked and lived in this socialist democracy across the pond, I worked a minimum wage job 4 days a week. Sometimes I put in extra hours at the bar, but only when I didn’t have something better planned for the weekend.
With my income I was able to rent a nice room in an apartment with 2 roommates. I was able to shop for quality food at the grocery store and cook nice meals. I was able to use my three-day weekends to travel more often than not. I was able to purchase both a bicycle and a bus pass to get me around town and the surrounding areas. I was able to go hit the town one night a week with my pals and drink until the bars closed. I was able to buy 2-3 new books every pay-day. And when I got sick, I was able to get care at the hospital free of charge.
Now, granted, I was only taking care of me at the time. I wasn’t trying to raise a family on this wage. BUT… If I had been, I could have skipped the travel and the drinking. I could have relied on the library instead of the bookstore. I could still have had shelter, food, clothing, water, education and health care. On minimum wage.
AND… If I had wanted more than that, I could have worked more, risen up the ranks at my job or looked for other work, or availed myself of the many free educational opportunities to learn a new skill or get the necessary qualifications to work in a different, better paying, field.
It wasn’t like living in a socialist democracy meant everyone had to wear the same brown sack clothes, live in the same brown tenement housing, eat the same brown mush meal after meal… It wasn’t as if no one could pursue their dreams (quite the opposite actually) or that there was no point getting up in the morning, or that hard work didn’t pay, or that you couldn’t pursue buckets of money and mountains of toys. It just meant, “There is a social floor below which people can not fall.“
It meant that if you were willing to work, you would have the basics covered – and parenting was recognized as work. If you were a parent, the nation would help you to be a parent without presenting you with the false choice of working to pay for daycare (and not much else) or staying home to starve with your children. If you were a parent, you could get help with your housing expenses, food expenses, clothing expenses – and again education and health care were covered for everyone so that you could be a full-time parent if that was your choice. Or you would get help with daycare costs so you could continue to pursue your career while being a parent.
I know there are people who think that America’s welfare system does this, that we have child care subsidies, that we have Medicaid, etc. but I can assure you – what we have is a joke by comparison. Entirely too many working people are falling through the cracks, being forced into bad choices to avoid even worse ones and then being punished for it.
We have broken the social contract, and we have broken our sacred trust to form a government that secures everyone’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Because if we are all forced to chase our own tails just pursuing access to life – there is no time, no energy, no reserve left to pursue happiness or to exercise our liberty – those “rights” too become privileges reserved for a lucky few.
If we truly want to uphold the intent of our founding fathers, then we must uphold these fundamental rights – the rights we felt were being violated by the British, the rights we went to war for, the rights we founded a nation on.
If we truly want to say we are the greatest nation on earth, then every full time worker in this nation MUST earn a living wage – because YES, even uneducated burger flippers deserve water, food, clothing, shelter, education and health care. Even undocumented immigrants picking fruit in our fields and cleaning our houses and watching our children and doing all the jobs no one else wants to do have the right to the basic requirements of life.
If we truly want to be the greatest nation on earth, then everyone must pay taxes to pay for schools, roads, hospitals, emergency services, parks, social services, and to ensure that the basic needs of all our citizens are being met.
When did it stop being patriotic to pay taxes? When did it stop being patriotic to contribute to the well-being of fellow citizens? When did we forget that we all rely on public services too, public services that cost money? When did we decide that it was the job of private charities to take care of the downtrodden, instead of the job of all of us to look after our own? When did we decide it was more important to make a profit than to live simply so that others may simply live?
When did we decide that life was a privilege?