July 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

WATER SHUT-OFFS IN DETROIT

Calling water a 'human right' doesn't wash

Congressman John Conyers, D-Detroit, has joined the chorus of those speaking against mass water shut-offs in Detroit. (Clarence Tabb Jr / The Detroit News)

Protesters advocating against the shut-off of water to those who haven’t paid their water bills offered an interesting chant on Friday, all while blocking access to a legitimate Detroit business that was doing nothing more than its job.

The protesters bellowed: “Who’s on their side? Corporations. Who’s on our side? United Nations.”

Is that supposed to be a defining statement in favor of the protesters?

The people who produce the goods and services that power this nation and employ millions are a less favorable association than the people who turn a blind eye to terrorism and genocide around the world?

What am I missing here?

Oh. This: According to the luminaries at the U.N., water is a basic human right. Let’s talk about the whole idea of “rights” and how one would actually apply it in real-life situations.

The founders of the United States identified life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as inalienable rights. The modern-day left wants to expand the category to include things like health care, food and now even water.

But there is a difference between the former group and the latter.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are things you are born with. No one has to provide them to you. The declaration that they are rights means that no one can take them away. The same goes for other First Amendment rights like that of free speech, freedom of assembly and so on. For you to exercise these rights does not require another party to provide you with anything. You simply wake up in the morning and start exercising them.

These fall under the category of stuff you do, and no one can take away your right to do them.

Then we get into an entirely different category: Stuff you need. The difference between stuff you do and stuff you need is that things in the latter category require someone else to provide them to you — unless, of course, you can grow your own food, do surgery on yourself or install plumbing that runs from Lake St. Clair to your house.

And you can’t. So claiming the stuff you need as rights means another party has to buy your food, buy your water and potentially take care of you — if not at their cost, then at the cost of a third party with whom the provider will be required to deal in order to get compensation.

These are not rights you exercise. These are “rights” you demand, and in order for these “rights” to be fulfilled, someone else is required to either take an action or incur an expense.

That’s really not a right at all. That’s a claim you’re making that no human being should be made to do without a basic need, regardless of ability to pay.

I am not unsympathetic to that claim, by the way. A civilized and compassionate society should provide a method through which people who lack the means to access basic needs can apply for access to them — and our society has done so. If you can’t afford food, you can get food stamps. If you can’t afford health care, you can go on Medicaid. And if you can’t pay your water bill, as a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder’s office points out, there are multiple programs in place to help you, such that no one truly in need would have to go without water.

But taking advantage of such programs still requires a degree of responsibility on your part. Simply ignoring your water bill for weeks or months, then participating in a protest march when your water provider shuts you off, is not how you do it.

If you need water and can’t afford it, the onus is on you to investigate the programs available to help you, and to reach out to those who run these programs. Even if you want to make the case that water is a right, you need to recognize that rights are coupled with responsibilities.

The United Nations can declare water a “right” all it wants. That doesn’t make it so. The U.N. doesn’t rule the world. When you signed up to have the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department provide you with water, you agreed to pay for it. Their responsibility ends when you stop paying your bills.

If you didn’t seek the help that’s available to you under such circumstances, that’s on you, not on them.

The only real rights you have are those you’re born with. You have the right to pursue the things you need to live.

What you don’t have is the right to demand someone else provide those things to you for free. You should be grateful you were born in a country that is compassionate enough to provide you with a means to get them regardless of your ability to pay. Then you should earnestly pursue those options while also trying to improve your situation so can pay for your own stuff.

And stop hindering businesses who pay their own water bills from being able to operate, just because you’re too busy demanding non-existent “rights” to remember your own responsibilities.

Dan Calabrese writes for The Politics Blog. To read more of his work, visit the blog at blogs.detroitnews.com/opinion.