Nobody could possibly be opposed to “human rights.” The idea sounds so pure and noble. So why does the phrase make me cringe?
When I speak of rights, I tend to speak of individual rights. That’s what the classical liberal thinkers had in mind a couple of hundred of years ago when they started recognizing rights. They realized that individuals had certain rights — to be left alone to live, speak, worship and trade as they wished. Politicians attempting to implement some of those ideas — such as the founders of this country after the split from Great Britain — did imperfect jobs of implementing the ideas, even though they were really good at quoting the rhetoric of individual rights. (If they had really understood their rhetoric, slavery wouldn’t have been made part of the Constitution, for instance.)
But since the beginning of the Progressive Era, people have talked about something entirely different. Influenced by Marxist ideas of rigid class structure, they slowly evolved the idea that groups have rights. To them, rights weren’t natural things which apply equally to every human. Instead, “workers” had certain “rights” just because they were part of a social or economic group. The idea was extended to other identifiable groups — women and racial minorities to start — and then kept expanding.
Today, there is a fundamental difference between individual rights and human rights, at least insofar as the connotation of the words. Individual rights refer to the idea that each one of us has the right to be left alone — a natural right which has nothing to do with our ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation or anything else other than simple humanity. It means we have the right to do and be what we want, just as long as we leave other people and their property alone, too.
Those who speak of human rights tend to mean something entirely different. They tend to be speaking of people having rights because they are members of certain identifiable groups — women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, transsexual rights, disability rights. The list goes on and on depending on how you want to segment people.
Do individuals have equal rights or do individuals acquire rights by being members of a group which is defined as having rights of its own?
It all comes down to two questions. Do rights belong to individuals or groups? Are there “negative” rights — the right to be left alone — or “positive” rights — the right to have certain things given to you? If you answer one of those questions, the other will almost certainly take care of itself.
The progressive left mindset is one of collectivism. It’s one that says we should see people in light of the group they’re part of. Those of us who believe the individual is the basic unit of society reject that. We believe that each individual has the same rights — that every single person is born with a natural right to do or be whatever he is able to achieve for himself.
For this reason, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of women’s rights or gay rights or any such thing. I believe that every single human being has the same inalienable rights. That applies to every woman, every gay person, every black man, every trans woman.
If everyone has exactly the same rights as a human being — as an individual — the idea of certain things being rights of a specific group is nonsensical.
Those who claim to stand for liberty lost their claim to leading the fight for human rights because they didn’t stand for individual rights when the individuals being betrayed by the law were women or black or gay. Progressives stepped into the vacuum and stood up for these people who were otherwise powerless. The progressive left was right to stand for the rights of these individuals, but their intellectual reasoning laid the foundation for the modern destruction of individual rights.
Your natural human rights give you the freedom to be left alone by government. You have the right to do as you please with your body and your property. But if your idea of “freedom” requires others to be coerced to do your will, you are badly confused about what the word means.
I will defend the rights of any individual to be left alone to live as he or she pleases, but I’m not going to pretend that the group “rights” promoted by our culture are anything but convenient ways of some people to force others to do their will.
I support real human rights — which are simply the natural rights of every individual — but I reject the collectivism that’s at the heart of what most people mean by the phrase today.
Note: If you’d like to learn more about the often-confusing difference between “positive rights” and “negative rights,” here’s one place to start. It makes sense after you get past the confusing labels.