From the beginning of the pandemic, I heard one simple idea every now and then, and it seems to express the assumption upon which a lot of policies came to be demanded:

I have a right not to be infected.

That is of course a falsity. There is not and can be no such right, as such. You have a right, at most, to negotiate the terms of your avoidance of infection.

The phrase: “I have a right not to be infected” shows an expectation of a miraculous nature imputed to rights as such, or to government in general.

How rights work in the real world are not so magical. A right is a specific kind of human instrument that only works when specifically limited to performable operations.

After all, every right articulates an obligation. In law, the obligations (and therefore rights) we worry about are those that may be compelled by law, or by those operating under its umbrella. We cannot compel people not to infect each other. We cannot effectuate such an outcome. Viruses are slippery critters. We can only compel people to do this and that. And most of those thises and thats must be negotiated for, traded for, accommodated by manners or by convenience. The error here — this assumption of having a right that is beyond our means to perform — has been made all across the political spectrum. I’ve heard it, or words to that effect, from progressives, conservatives, libertarians. All are wrong. Very wrong.

I suppose at some point I’ll have to write about why this is so. It seems obvious to me, but what’s obvious to me isn’t widely observed. Think of it like a similar notion, which I often hear amongst my compeers: “no one has a right to pollute.” Well, estoppel principles apply, and finders-keepers/first-poopers rights apply, too.

One should not try to make ”rights” do too much work. That is the way to break the tool itself — and rights are a very useful tool. It would be a pity were it broken because its users abused it.