Sun, Mar 03, 2002 - Page 9 News List

Base rights on the individual, not collectives

Assigning rights to groups can involve conflict and requires coercion, whereas enforcing individual rights can lead to more cooperation and coordination

By Christopher Lingle

While the dignity of human beings is being trampled throughout the world, some of the attempts to end these abuses are misguided. Indeed, the most vocal supporters of so-called human rights are actually promoting a legal concept that supports the misconduct they wish to see ended.

In particular, human rights are most often referred to in terms of collective or group rights. Similarly, government officials often engage in populist promises by defining rights based on economic or social characteristics. In both instances, the attempt to construct a system of group rights is fraught with danger.

Basing human rights upon fundamental social rights is likely to result in zero or negative-sum policy outcomes. While some groups benefit, others must necessarily lose. While individual liberties in the form of private property rights and freedom of exchange are likely to be diminished, other freedoms are also threatened.

By ignoring the key role of individual rights being guaranteed rights to autonomous human beings, collective or group-rights proponents are flirting with the destruction of the rule of law.

Referring to social or collective or group rights masks the fact that assignment of such rights may involve empowerment or possessions that require the action or aid of others. In the process of activating such group rights, the rights of other individuals will be violated by imposing obligation upon them.

Rights that impose obligations necessarily attenuate the freedom of choice and action of others. Whereas the assignment and enforcement of individual rights leads to coordination and cooperation, collectivized human rights involve conflict and require coercion.

This collectivistic context of human rights as group rights also violates the generality requirement of jurisprudence contained within Kant's categorical imperative. Under this Kantian system, justice is served when rights are applied generally and without particular, arbitrary preferences for individuals or groups.

Following the above argument, the appropriate domain of human rights would be to protect and extend individual rights, especially those rights expressed in the holding of private property. What is at stake is the choice of a system that serves as the means for attaining and measuring social justice.

On the one hand, private property rights might be seen as essential for safeguarding most other civil rights. On the other hand, these rights might be the most effective incentive to inspire individual effort that may lead to general prosperity of the community.

Alternatively, a focus on social or communitarian rights is likely to lead to reliance upon a political determination of the economic position (income and wealth) of individuals in the community. Politicizing such outcomes in pursuit of a special sense of social justice will allow for greater opportunities for special interest groups or power elites to exploit other groups or specific individuals within the community. It can also allow envy and politics to brew up a ghastly stew.

However, anchoring human rights to a (more or less inviolable) concept of private property will reduce the number of politicized decisions that affect peoples lives. This would be less exploitative and also less arbitrary and probably more stable since community actions are justified by mutual consent and voluntary exchange among individuals.

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