Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., is the most unpopular man in the Senate, according to his colleagues. "Today we have a clear-cut example to show the American people just what's wrong with Washington, D.C.," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "He's hurting the American people," spat Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
What is Bunning doing that deserves such reproof? He has the audacity to stall a 30-day extension of unemployment and COBRA health-care benefits on the grounds that the extension would add $10 billion to the federal deficit, which is already expected to hit $1.6 trillion this year. Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., wants to pass that extension unanimously in order to expedite the process; Bunning has refused, correctly pointing out that the Democrats passed a "pay as you go" policy that was supposed to make spending deficit neutral, and that now they're tossing that policy out the window for political convenience. Bunning has even suggested a way to make the extension deficit neutral: Take money out of the unspent chunk of the Obama stimulus package and use it to fund the extension. Democrats have refused.
Here's the truth: Bunning is a hero, and his senatorial critics are villains. That goes for Republicans as well as Democrats. Bunning's opponents are liars and hypocrites of the highest order. The Democrats have no intention of lowering the deficit or abiding by "pay-go," and this only proves it. President Obama set up a joke commission supposedly designed to restore fiscal responsibility (he appointed noted spendthrift and Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern), but at the same time, Obama's mouthpiece, Robert Gibbs, is informing the American public that "This is an emergency situation. Hundreds of thousands have been left in the lurch. … I don't know how you negotiate the irrational."
Advertisement - story continues below
The Democrats and Republicans who oppose Bunning want fiscal responsibility, unless it actually requires them to act fiscally responsible. Unless it's an "emergency." Here's the question: If we can't trust legislators to be fiscally responsible during economic emergencies, how can we trust them to be fiscally responsible during economic swells?
But there's something even more insidious going on here than simple political gamesmanship. Too many Americans now believe that the checks they receive every month from the unemployment office – like the checks they get from the welfare office, from Medicare, from Social Security – are inalienable rights. They are not.
Our politicians and our press have become too loose with "rights talk." Everything is now a "right." The "right" to work. The "right" to health care. The "right" to a own a home. Each and every one of these "rights" is actually a restriction on liberty.
Our Constitution provides for liberty because it focuses on true rights – negative rights. Negative rights are rights created by restraining others from treating you in a certain way. The right to free speech exists because we restrict the government from encroaching upon free speech. The right to bear arms exists because we restrict the government from taking away guns (or should, in any case). The right to life exists because we restrict citizens from murder.
Advertisement - story continues below
Positive rights are something else entirely: They are rights created by forcing others to engage in certain behavior. The right to work, for example, requires someone else to give you a job. The right to health care requires someone else to provide health care for you. These are not true rights, but tyrannical impositions, taking from Party A and giving to Party B.
No country that focuses more on positive rights than negative rights can remain truly free for long. Negative rights provide a space in which individuals can pursue happiness; positive rights impose crushing burdens on some for the benefit of others.
Sen. Bunning is standing up for negative rights – the same underlying rights that provide the framework for our system of government. His opponents are standing up for positive rights, suggesting that some of us, the employed, owe something to the unemployed – or worse, that future generations owe something to today's unemployed.
Everyone sympathizes with the unemployed, of course. But many of those who are living off the unemployment program affected by Bunning's stand have been on the unemployment lines for over a year at this point – at minimum, everyone affected has been on unemployment for at least six months. We simply cannot keep extending unemployment benefits indefinitely by calling on imaginary "rights" derived from depriving others. That is not only a betrayal of those who must pay, but a betrayal of our founding principles.