Across the political spectrum, from Libertarians and Randian Objectivists to socialists, there is agreement on the existence and sanctity of basic individual (human) rights. The concept of what those rights entail is, however, an ideological battleground, with the progressive left increasingly using the terms to describe an ever-expanding universe of civil liberties and welfare entitlements, distancing the concept from the idea of individual rights as a limit on state power.
The idea of individual rights is a moral concept that defines certain prerogatives that the individual retains in his dealings with other individuals or institutions – or as Ayn Rand puts it: ‘Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law’.
Historically, society has routinely been considered above any moral law. The individual has traditionally been subordinated to a greater good, normally country or king. This is the hallmark of any totalitarian system. Only recently has the recognition of the concept of individual rights attempted to correct that imbalance. However, from military draft to taxation, fundamental rights to personal freedom and property is obviously still routinely being violated in the service of the greater good. In modern society, the state is still above any absolute moral law.
To define fundamental rights, we must consider it imperative that such rights can never violate someone else’s fundamental rights. A bit of consideration readily reveals that the rights that satisfy this criterion can be expressed simply as the rights to personal freedom and to private property. My right to personal freedom is restricted by, but does not violate your right to the same. My right to private property has no impact on your right to the same.
However, this simple concept is abandoned in the modern definition of human rights. Already when the Human Rights Act was signed in 1948, amongst the few dozen rights were things like the right to education and adequate living standards, in obvious opposition to the right of others to private property. It is patently impossible to bestow goods on someone who cannot pay for it without violating the property rights of someone else, who is being compelled to provide it.
It is obvious that some civil liberties such as right to marriage and family, freedom of speech or religion flows from the right to personal freedom and as such should not have to be explicitly stated – but doing so does serve the purpose of enshrining in law explicit limits to the state’s remit. However, the declaration is written in language that opens up for obvious abuses. It is telling that the declaration does not include the ‘right to private property’, but the less clear cut ‘right to own property’. It adds that ‘No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property’ – international law obviously regards the legislative process as completely rational and objective.
The United Nations Human Rights Council now routinely adds to a growing list of more than 300 rights. Added to the original list are rights to things like food, housing and even internet access. The rights inflation is serving a collectivist agenda of subordinating the individual to the needs of society and increasing the remit of government. Whereas the right to private property and individual freedom can be upheld by the courts, the right to free education or internes access requires intervention by government.
To defend freedom, we must reject the inflation of rights. The individual rights to personal freedom and private property are fundamental and inviolable and the rights of others should never conflict with our own. Rights are there to limit the reach of government, to subordinate society to moral law – not to bestow social and economic entitlements on the electorate. The totality of rights does not evolve with society.