SignsPolice and government officials seem to feel there is a legal distinction between rights and privileges. For example, driving is frequently referred to as "a privilege, not a right."

Despite having attended Harvard Law School (maybe I was asleep during the privilege discussion), I am unable to follow this distinction for such a basic means by which one is able to get around in modern society.

Especially for this liberty-oriented site, I would think driving is clearly a basic human right, like free speech or walking or s-x. Subject to reasonable regulation perhaps like having to take a driving test, or not having been convicted of drunk driving. But it seems to me everyone who complies with this reasonable regulation has an absolute right to drive.

While I would be wary of questioning such a favorite phrase when next stopped ("Officer, I think you are playing with words: Driving is obviously a right, not just a privilege"), is there some distinction here that means something or is it just officious silliness?

Russ Herrold replies:

tFrom ancient memories, formerly rights/privileges had differing meaning, but there is a line of cases post-Reconstruction, keying off the 14th Amendment's application of federal Constitutional limits upon the states ('Privileges and Immunities') at the federal Supreme Court. That line whittled away to nothingness the former [Founders'] distinctions of States Rights vs Federalism, and with it, the judicial need for a way to distinguish and dis-agregate rights from privileges. 

J.T. Holley writes:

I was taught by my father (a truck driver) that it was a privilege to drive on Interstates! They were built by the "Gummit" and maintained by the States. Now where I'm from anything dirt or gravel is your own and is a right.Don't know if anyone has every written or spoken of roads but to be observant you can see the straighter the road the more a privilege, the curvier the more a right! I guess out West it's a little different? If you go through rural Virginia you see wavy roads that meander. Most visitors ask "why is it so curvy?" The reason is that they go along property lines. Those lines can't be violated, and if so then it is a privilege to do so, but if you remain on your own property then it's a right to do so!





Speak your mind

3 Comments so far

  1. Patrick Bruce on November 30, 2007 7:13 pm

    If driving is a privilege, then so are taxes. I pay a luxury tax to the state of California when I buy my car don’t I? Is that tax subjective or debatable?

    If driving was a privilege then shouldn’t all mass transit be free? Is it a privilege to live in your house or a right? The level of buffoonery and hypocrisy just kills me.

  2. Mima on December 1, 2007 8:02 am

    Privilege just means your legal ability to operate a vehicle on a public road can be revoked. Use of sidewalks or riding a bicycle on roads needs no license and therefore cannot be revoked. Bicycles on roads and use of sidewalks are rights not privileges (of course not on Interstates). Privilege just means anything that the state can giveth and can taketh away.

  3. Joe Hruban on December 17, 2007 8:33 pm

    Someone explained it this way to me years ago. The term driver's license comes from driving a team of horses or oxen while engaged in commerce. This license, granted by the government to engage in commerce, is a privilege. If you are operating your personal property such as an automobile to travel from point A to point B without engaging in commerce you have such a right to travel and no license is required. He explained to me that he never had a driver's license. "Officer, I am traveling in my personal property which I have a right to do. If I were driving thus engaged in commerce then a license would be required by law for that privilege."


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