A new ad-campaign for a federal nutrition program caught my eye. It shows a family sitting down to supper, and says, “Because a well-balanced meal should not be a privilege.” My first reaction was, “It’s a choice, especially this time of year.” I can choose to eat junk food, or choose to eat veggies and a good protein and fat source, or toss it all out the window and go ice cream all the way. So can most people. Granted, some face much tighter constraints, as I did when I was flying charter in Flatter-Than-You’d-Think state. One month I made all of, oh, four hundred dollars. Rent was $370 a month. Plus utilities. I had some savings to scrape by on, but I ate a lot of “discount protein and dented can stew.”
But yes, there are some people for whom this federal program is a very, very good stop-gap until things improve and other resources become available. And there are some people who never learned how to cook, and others who live in true utility apartments or hot-bunk and don’t have a place to store perishables or time to cook them.
Still, the description of a balanced meal as “privilege” implies that it is actually a right. That’s where I hit a mental wall. It’s the same wall that rises up before me when I hear non-emergency medical care called a “right” or fast internet access as “a right.” Who is taking whom to give to whom? Because, with a few exceptions, routine medical care costs someone. Even if the doctor is donating his labor and knowledge, or is a nurse in a religious order that provides health care to the truly desperate, someone has to pay for the lights, and the supplies, and so on. Someone has to pay for the wire or cable, and the router, and computer equipment, and other things to make the internet flow.
“Privilege.” From privas lex, later privilegium, private law. These were rules, or exemptions from rules, that only applied to one individual or one small group. Later it came to mean special rights belonging to a group or an individual, then the idea of a special advantage. In early English legal writings, privilege had a negative connotation. It was unfair, and the law should apply to all equally.
“Right” Recht, in German, a straight line, a legal entitlement that follows a straight and proper path. That goes back to the Proto-Indo-European sense of a good, straight path or road (or piece of wood.) The older sense was a piece of property, later more intangible things – fishing rights, justice no matter one’s weregeld or social position so long as he was free-born.
Interestingly, the Latin still has a whiff, strong whiff, of negative connotation. Food of some kind should not be only for the favored few. It is correct and straight dealings for people to have [noun].
More and more, I hear things described as “a human right.” Clean water, clean air, internet, free medical care, private housing with air-conditioning and comfortable furnishings and all the amenities. A smart-phone. Internet access, presumably whenever the person wants it, so she doesn’t have to go to the library and use a public-access terminal. In other words, a late 20th Century, middle class or upper lower-class standard of living, with the diet to match. The person declaring this often also declares that materialism is evil and we should all live simply, with fewer possessions and amenities (air conditioning) and spend more time in public spaces because that’s where true inner peace and satisfaction come from.
My brief taste of a greatly simplified, much harder laboring, lifestyle cured me of any desire to live that way, or to impose it on others. There was no bucolic, rural Arcadia outside of Romantic paintings and Rousseau’s fevered imagination.
Life, liberty, and property. Those are rights. The right to defend yourself and your family. The right to clear title for what you purchased. The right to relocate when I choose, to where I choose, so long as it doesn’t interfere with other people’s rights. The right to determine, as far as possible for your time, place, and talents, how you will earn your living and what hobbies you pursue. The right to believe or not believe as your conscience commands. And even with employment choices, one might be limited by the rest of the people around you. I have a right not to have my goods stolen, so you don’t have a right to make a living as a thief. Most people also oppose human sacrifice, so no Aztec revivalist religion, either. Your rights stop where mine start. Where exactly is that line? Well, we humans are still sorting out a workable, consistent answer. If there is one.
None of those depend on other people giving you anything, or paying you simply for existing. Or for the government providing things. Actually, what our activist above called rights – internet, housing – are actually privileges in the legal sense. A private law and grant is made, consisting of a service or a good.
I have no problem with encouraging people to eat balanced meals. I will happily donate produce, or help sponsor cooking and nutrition classes for people who want and need them. But if someone chooses to make decisions about how and where to spend their funds that lead them to living on pizza, burgers, fried chicken, or mac-n-cheese, or tacos and burritos . . . That’s their choice. Especially if someone has tried to help the person make better choices.
It’s not fair that I can afford canned tomatoes and corn more easily than some, and have the time to find discount meat at the grocery, and can cook. Or that I have time to cook big batches so I don’t have to cook later, and the cost is lower per serving. But those are my choices. Not a privilege. My privilege is living here, now, when all these things are so amazingly cheap and plentiful compared to 100 years ago.