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« The NSPCC: anti-child | Main | Freeing banks »
Thursday
Mar192009

Human rights and liberties

Lanna at Head Desk has been pondering the question of the universality (or not) of human rights, and I started to write a comment there, but I decided it was worth turning it into a full posting here.

I've been wondering about the distinction between human rights and liberties for some time now and in recent weeks have come to the conclusion that a human right essentially defines an entitlement and therefore a duty on government (and perhaps on others), while a liberty defines a restriction on government (and perhaps on others). I've also concluded that human rights are potentially disastrous.

Here's an example of why.

Lanna's a home educator, and as I've commented previously, there is an ongoing campaign against HE by the government. They have instituted a review of the whole area - the fourth in three years IIRC - and this appears to have been preordained to conclude that there is a need for home inpections by state-approved monitors. Once in place, this will no doubt lead in time to the outlawing of HE. By way of a softening-up exercise, the government has arranged for its client charity, the NSPCC, to make vague insinuations of child abuse in the direction of home educators, which Lanna reckons is a fairly obvious attempt to stigmatise the whole community before regulating and legislating against them. It certainly looks very much like the similar treatment dished out to smokers and foxhunters in the past and so I think she may well be right.

So what has this got to do with human rights? Well, from the HE perspective, how come then the state can demand entry to your home? How come they can force your children to talk to them? How come they can demand that you not be present? Haven't you got a right to privacy? The right to a family life? You would hope, wouldn't you that your human rights would protect you against this sort of thing. But you'd be wrong. The government will argue that the mere possibility of the loss of the child's rights justifies the loss of parental rights to privacy.

And this is the problem with human rights. By creating entitlements, but no understanding of how to balance different people's entitlements off against each other, they create confusion and sow discord and eventually leave the field of debate entirely empty, ready for government to legislate as they wish. 

In this case the government has decided that the parent's rights are secondary. (This rather conveniently coincides with their own prejudices and the needs of their financial backers in the trades unions and the educational establishment, who of course want to stop state schools from haemorraging pupils.) But it is clear that they could just as easily have referred to the right to privacy of the parents and decided something completely different. The same set of human rights can give entirely different outcomes depending on who happens to be in power at the time and the whims of whoever is funding them.

Human rights give governments the power to do what they want.

So how would it work with a liberties-based approach?  The first thing to notice is that a liberty doesn't say anything about any individual's entitlements. But by defining what government may not do, the definition of a liberty implies how the rights of the individuals are to be balanced, and moreover, it implies them in a way that makes the outcome completely clear:  there is only one possible conclusion that can be drawn.

For our HE example, the US Fourth Amendment (this is clearer for explaining the principles) simply says that the government may not enter the home without reasonable suspicion and a warrant. While this doesn't actually seem to address the question at hand - of how to balance the rights/needs/entitlements of parent and child, these things all flow naturally from the elucidation of the liberty. The rights of the child do receive appropriate protection ("if there's reasonable suspicion, we'll come and check things out") as do those of the parents ("we'll leave you alone unless there's reasonable suspicion").

Liberty works. It has worked for hundreds of years when it has been given the chance. Human rights don't. They never have.

 

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Reader Comments (8)

Nice definition. So when it feels like the government is taking a liberty it's probably because they quite literally are.
Mar 20, 2009 at 1:33 AM | Unregistered CommenterAngry Exile
In my view : Rights are those entitlements specifically stated in the laws of a society - these may vary from time to time and from society to society. The adjectives used with the word Rights, "human" or "basic", are bogus and replace the term "God-given" to infer that there are some universal Rights awarded by some higher authority which apply to all societies irrespective of whether those societies wish them or need them. It is the Judeo-Christians (tablet of stone mentality, laws handed down from God) who decide which Rights are right or wrong. We are prepared to go to war to impose our Rights on people in other Countries, so entering the home of a citizen in one's own Country to impose them, is a minor thing.

In this way Rights have come to be considered to be compulsory, whereas in fact they are voluntary and can be claimed through the law, and also in some cases to be protection against laws and the excesses of the State or society.

Liberties are those things which custom and tradition allow in a particular society for which there is no legal prohibition.

In short, Rights have become an instrument of Government, rather than a guarantee for the individual. Exercise of Right is no longer an individual choice, and the Government will chose or invent which Right shall prevail at any particular time and which trumps any other Right.

The political neo-aristocracy which has emerged over the last few decades, believes in Government as its own constituency, no longer to serve the People but to be served by the People and be protected from them. It works in its own interest and development : the People are a threat which must be overcome.
Mar 20, 2009 at 9:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterLaroquois
Mar 20, 2009 at 10:46 AM | Unregistered Commenterlukas
Your definitions seem intuitive, but are evidently too straightforward for academia, the powers that be, etc. Trying to learn about them via internet trawl has given me numerous headaches..

I think I started to lose the faith when it became apparent how individual governments are using the human rights conventions as agenda-advancing tools rather than inspiration to improve human welfare.
Mar 20, 2009 at 2:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterLanna
This is a confused retelling of Isiah Berlin's Two Concepts of Liberty...
Mar 24, 2009 at 6:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterBob
Bob

No it isn't. Positive liberty is the means (primarily economic) to do something. An entitlement is much wider in scope and is not really about economic means at all.
Mar 24, 2009 at 8:30 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill
You make a strong case, but you ultimately ignore the other side of liberties that matter here...the child's right to get a proper education. It would be fantastic if we could just assume that all HE are good and do the job well...but we can't can we? Just like we can't just assume that state funded schools do the job well.

Liberties are not only to protect us against the government, but also against each other, and in that sense the government is an agent to ensure that the liberties of the child are not inflicted on the by the choices of the HE
Jun 1, 2009 at 10:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterLee Griffin
Lee

Firstly, welcome.

Yes, the government has to protect those who are having their rights trampled on. But it is only allowed to intervene when it has reasonable suspicion. It should not be allowed to demand access to someone's home to check they are educating their children properly any more than it should be allowed to access someone's children to check they are not being abused.

One point that the HE community has made is that once their objections have been swept aside, the next in line will parents of under fives. Under-fives as we all know are "entirely unregulated" and may have no contact with "community workers". If this is considered too awful for school-aged HE children, it is certainly too awful for under fives who may not be able to express their concerns properly. The proposal for HE seems to be that social workers should be able to interview children without the parents being present. It seems logical to conclude then that this will be mooted for all families with pre-school children. The sitation and the concerns are to all intents and purposes identical.

Is that what you want?
Jun 1, 2009 at 8:20 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

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