When I look back on the spring and summer of 2020, I see cars in line at Jefferson University Hospital for Covid-19 tests, Chestnut and Walnut streets shattered by looters, and media incapable of covering more than one story at a time as it focused on – then dropped news of the virus, the protests, the stimulus, and the post office. But above all else, I see people clamoring for their rights.

The crises that hit us this year have sent every activist scrambling for a position above the rubble from which they can shout their slogans and demand what they see as theirs. When we most need to come together to face massive disruption, we always seem to be interrupted by people whose first concern is to take what they think is theirs and then come back to take even more.

What many of these people fail to see is that rights come with tremendous responsibilities. Individual rights are enabled by society, and to that society we are bound to give back as we take.

Consider the protests over racial injustice. For a moment in June, most everyone paused to consider the possibility of structural racism and real inequities in education and healthcare. The staunchest supporters of the police stopped for a moment and agreed that yes, there is a problem we must address.

Then, the activists swept in and the demand for rights swelled to include things that the needy and working people of Philadelphia never considered. Or needed. As those in challenged neighborhoods weighed the need for a fair police presence to stem the violence that threatens their children, the activists marched to defund the police. As people began to find their voices about investment to improve their neighborhoods, they were drowned out by other activists who purported to help them as they pivoted and set their sights on Christopher Columbus and cash bail.

The cry for rights was increasingly made by people who bore no responsibility at all to the people they claimed to represent. Many from impoverished neighborhoods sulked at home while white progressives with “Billionaires should not exist” signs in the windows of their $700,000 Queen Village homes forced their way into the spotlight and grabbed away the bullhorn. Basic human rights were ignored as protests became more political and demands more symbolic.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should be a given. But we must always remember that rights are individual – not collective – liberties.

Rights are easily demanded in marches and campaigns, but the responsibilities that come with those rights are met by each individual. Mass movements tend to disregard the individual who lives with the promise and the awareness that when they are given something, they owe something back. With the right to a quality public education comes the responsibility to show up every day and study. With the right to healthcare comes the expectation to live a healthy lifestyle.

Rights come with great responsibility because almost every time we exercise a right, at least an economic right, someone else makes a sacrifice. We owe those who make the sacrifice.

I’m not offering platitudes. Years ago, due to a struggle with mental illness, I was living on disability insurance in an attic while on food stamps. I needed help.

I turned to the social safety net most agree must exist. While that safety net supported me, I never lost sight of the fact that there were people holding that net providing for me and others like me through their taxes while they made great sacrifices in their own lives. To pay for these programs, they were giving up vacations and better schools for their kids.

I had a deep obligation to them to live well and to get better. I adhered to treatment; I took whatever work I could find. I soon got off of assistance and now pay it forward to others through my taxes and charity. I felt the responsibility to others and rose to it. They gave me the ability to build a better life. Fortunately, my illness was treatable. I did not let down the people who paid to help me.

Many rights insisted on by people today cost money. It’s an election year, so we’re hearing a lot about spending to uphold those rights. Maybe instead, we should support earning to meet our responsibilities. Endless spending programs aimed at alleviating poverty in the inner city have yielded little, yet progressives want to expand and add to these programs. Perhaps our focus should shift to opportunity zones to help people earn. Instead of regulating away the possibility lower income people face when they dream of starting their own businesses, we should incentivize efforts toward business formulation and job creation.

We’ve spent our way into this society where people demand rights and don’t consider their responsibilities to others. I believe we can earn our way out of that mindset.

In the face of injustice, people should focus on their rights. Society owes everyone a fair shake. I understand the urge to seize control of the agenda of what people deserve. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should be a given. But we must always remember that rights are individual – not collective – liberties.

As individuals, we owe it to the group that guarantees our rights. We have a responsibility to each other. Through meeting this responsibility, we earn respect, and with this respect rights are more freely given. Liberty should be assumed, but we earn our rights. We must be worthy of the rights we claim.

George Hofmann is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, their daughter and two poorly behaved dogs.

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