Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Rights of The Rich

Tibor R. Machan

No, the rich have no special rights, none at all. But since so many people insist on trying to violate the human rights they do have, it is worthwhile mentioning that no one has any moral authority to violate, abrogate, restrict the rights of the rich. Even when they spend their money on what some people believe are trivial pursuits.

This all comes to mind because The New York Times carried an Op Ed column on Thursday, July 10, 2008, written by a professor, Professor Ray D. Madoff of Boston College School of Law attacking the late Leona Helmsley for giving billions of dollars to a charity that cares for dogs. Her argument is that "The charitable deduction constitutes a subsidy from the federal government. The government, in effect, makes itself a partner in every charitable bequest. In Mrs. Helmsley’s case, given that her fortune warranted an estate tax rate of 45 percent, her $8 billion donation for dogs is really a gift of $4.4 billion from her and $3.6 billion from you and me."

This is nonsense, of course. The estate tax is sheer extortion and, in any case, if one gives one's fortune to charity, it doesn't apply. No subsidies were made to the dogs! By recognizing the right of the rich to bequeath their wealth as they see fit, including for some arguably ridiculous causes, nothing is lost to anyone. If Mrs. Helmsley got her money fair and square, in the free market place, it's hers to do with as she sees fit. In no way did her decision to help out dogs hurt us? How, for example, was her decision different from millions of people's decision to keep and care for their dogs and other animals, money that might well be spent by them on something the professor believes is more important? Since it is their money, they get to spend it as they want, no? It's a free country and just as with having to tolerate the silly things other people say and write--e.g., Professor Madoff's Op Ed--so we will just have to tolerate how others choose to peacefully spend their resources, however much we don't like it.

Professor Madoff's idea is similar to that of many politicians, such as Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, that the money other people earn, inherit, or happen to come by some other legitimate way doesn't really belong to them but to the government. This is sheer socialism, whereby no right to private property exists and needs to be secured by the government in its capacity of the protector of the rights of the citizenry. And we should remember that those rights are equally held by all persons, not excepting the wealthy. Just think, would killing a wealthy person be any less of a violation of the right to life than killing someone poor? Certainly not. Nor would robbing a poor person amount to any more of a rights violation than robbing someone who is rich. These are rights we all have as human beings, not as members of an economic class!

Then there is the bizarre notion, advanced in Professor Madoff's column, that making a charitable contribution to an organization that cares for dogs is something petty, inconsequential. I say this as someone who has for years dispute the idea that animals have rights and finds the recent decision by the Spanish government to "recognize" the rights of great apes absurd. But the fact that animals have no rights does not mean at all that animals do not experience hardship, hunger, pain, even torture and thus do not ever deserve to be provided with care by human beings, especially those who have the wealth to spend on them. In fact, instead of talk about animal rights we should continue with the much more sensible moral position that it is decent to be caring toward animals. From childhood on most of us are taught that cruelty to animals is morally wrong. Any decent human being will refuse to inflict unnecessary pain and hardship on other animals even if it makes sense to use animals in certain situations for various human purposes, such as medical research, transportation, nourishment and so forth. Such use does not amount to wanton cruelty.

The late Mrs. Helmsley, who amassed a large fortune, may well have done something quite admirable by leaving a large amount of her wealth to be used to care for dogs. At any rate, it was her money and she had every right giving it away for this purpose. And so are all of us perfectly within our rights to spend our honestly come by resources for similar purposes. It is scandalous that Professor Madoff would propose otherwise. Nonetheless, the fact that she does advocate such nonsense is just another example of how human rights work--they may be exercised wisely and not so wisely. She accuses the late Mrs. Helmsley of having exercised her rights unwisely and I am accusing her of having done the same when she chose to write her Op Ed piece. In both cases, that is the price of having basic rights and living in a country where they are protected.

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