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Rights, rights everywhere and not a definition in sight; wherever and whenever something is given or denied one is likely to hear it is a right.  A right to childcare, a right to healthcare, a right to fair trial, a right to an education and most recently a right to birth control.  With all these rights flying around one might ask, “What exactly is a right or even more importantly what is not?”  It seems today almost anything can be called a right and often almost anything is.  If it all seems confusing that’s because it is suppose to be.  The recognition of “rights” is one of the most fundamental advancements human kind but what is and is not a right escapes most people.

There was a time when rights were what a king would confer upon his subjects and what God supposedly had conferred upon the king.  At that time rights were nothing more than permissions to exercise authority.   A king had a right to make his words law, a favored subject may be given the right to a piece of property or to collect taxes.  Outside of the king, individuals were told they had rights only if the king said they had them.  The king himself supposedly got his rights from God and these were subsequently called Divine Rights.

The Divine Rights of Kings was first challenged by Anglo-Saxons, who had an older tradition called Common Law which said all men by virtue of being human beings had the right to certain expectations.  It was these expectations that were written into British Law with the signing of the Magna Carta.  These rights of all mankind were further developed by John Locke into the philosophy we now call individualism.  This philosophy declared all responsible adults have individual rights, rights that are an inherent part of being a human being.  The roots of these rights can be traced back through Common Law to Natural Law to the very creation of mankind.  This philosophy saw the individual as the most basic unit of society and to a great extent sovereign unto himself.  The right to be your own master and to follow a path of your own choosing is an inherent part of being human.  Government for its part is an invention of individuals used to create a society and can only have such power as an individual is able to delegate to it.  It is these ideas that inspired the Declaration of Independence and are enshrined in the Constitution of the United States.

Across the English Channel, the French developed a very different view of rights.  Mainland Europeans had no common law heritage to draw on; all they had was a tradition of royal caretakers.  Out of that tradition a man named Rousseau developed a philosophy based on society as whole and not the individual.  The result was the French Revolution and the writing of the Rights of Man.  The Rights of Man put forth not only what rights men had but also what government’s responsibilities were.  In this view a society is the basic unit and government its head.  Individuals for their part were the cells of the societal body and had the right to certain expectations from society, certain rights.   It is this concept of rights that in turned formed the basis of the modern concept of Human Rights.

It is the competition of these two viewpoints that continues today.  In words they often seem quite similar but in practice they can be like night and day.  The clash between these two viewpoints was in full bloom this past week when the Obama administration’s pushed for a “right” to birth control.  The President’s view of birth control being a right is based in the concept of Human Rights and government’s responsibility to its people. Of course this mandate goes against the most basic of individual rights; the right to follow one’s conscience.

Now if President Obama had made such a pronouncement in Europe it probably would not have raised as much as an eyebrow.  Today Portugal is telling people how they must spell their names, throughout Europe people are being prosecuted for saying the wrong words and it has even been proposed that access to the internet be made a basic human right.  This is because European viewpoints are very much shaped by the ideas of the French Revolution.  The problem for Obama is America is not Europe and Americans, despite years of liberal education, have their own revolution to inspire them.  The U.S. is based in the idea of individual rights and the mandate violates those rights.

The fact is, the ideas behind the concept of Human Rights is incompatible with Individual Rights and liberty.  Human Rights have no limit and demand one part of society must pay and support other parts.  It is no coincidence that Human Rights activist are usually also Economic Justice activist.  While we can all agree that a government that tortures and kills its citizens*is in violation of peoples’ rights, like what is happening now in Syria, there is total disagreement over the idea of a government’s right to redistribute wealth by force.  Under Individual Rights it is also unconscionable for a government to confiscate resources, control speech and mandate behaviors for the so called “societal good.”  Such things fall under the very definition of tyranny and cannot be tolerated.

The truth is adherence to Human Rights cannot keep a free people free, only Individual Rights can do that.  Communism, socialism, progressivism and Fascism all hold the idea that government has the right and responsibility to reshape and control society for the greater good.  They all tout their protections of people’s rights (or, in the case of Fascism, the rights of true citizens) and they all in the end trample on the most basic of rights, that of the individual.  Even in their most benevolent form their attempts to free people from fear and failure turns men and women into dependent children with all the liberty and freedom one grants a child.  And like children they will strike out in anger and throw fits of rage when denied what they have come to believe is their “Right.”

Unfortunately those things that are called Human Rights often strike a populous tone and even gain support of an overwhelming majority.  This may make it right under the auspices of society’s “General Will” but when Human Rights violate Individual rights there can be no compromise. The desires of the majority do not negate the rights of the minority. Individual rights are not and cannot be up for vote or declared subservient to something as vague as Human Rights.

*with the clear exception of countries like China and Russia for whom tyranny is thought to be one of the rights of government

“Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their fate.  That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild.  It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood:  It is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing.  For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasure, manages their principle concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances; what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living.”

Alexis Tocqueville

The Conservative Mind

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