Throughout the world the mantra rises for all nations to protect “human rights.” And while this normally refers to protecting life, it often goes out as a call to protect the latest interest of an esoteric movement: usually one availing itself of the tactic of shame in a bid to have its every demand met in full. We see this in the push to end “gender-labels,” where academicians argue that the traits of being male or female are socially constructed vehicles of oppression that stand in violation of “human rights.” And we also see it in pushes for “universal healthcare,” where people claim medical services are just one more thing to which they have a right.
And while no one should deny that there are rights intrinsic to humanity, we must be careful about seizing onto the “human rights” mantra too quickly. For the phrase “human rights” does not denote what the West has long referenced as “natural rights.” In fact, the two categories of rights are, in some ways, not only unrelated but actually at enmity with one another. Moreover, whereas “natural rights” offer a viable (and tested) foundation for freedom, “human rights” offer an avenue to power for tyrannical leaders and ideologues who are willing to sacrifice even their own people for a cause, whatever it may be.
Consider this: “natural rights” are frequently described as God-given, and as such provide a bulwark against government’s tendency to become tyrannical. “Human rights,” on the other hand, are usually the constructs of men: men who are most often atheistic (or “enlightened”) in their worldview, and therefore looking for some earthly-yet-quasi-universal justification for being nice to one another and abiding by the rules of the state.
A clear contrast between these categories of rights can be had by looking at the different motivations that were behind the French Revolution and the American Revolution.
After the Bastille was stormed in 1789, the revolution in France was undertaken in pursuit of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” And by 1791, as the details of these overarching goals effervesced beneath the steady march of the Jacobins, it was apparent that “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” would be sought as a way to secure the “rights of man,” and those rights, in turn, would lead to the creation of an idealistic, classless society—democratic rather than monarchial—where the ultimate ruling dogma was “might makes right.” This was especially apparent once Maximilien Robespierre began his “reign of terror,” and those who weren’t ready or willing to pursue the “rights of man” were done away via the executioner’s blade.
This is very telling, because the “rights of man” sounds so universal, so basic to humanity itself (in much the same way that “human rights” does today). But it was really just a tool for ideologues, and as such, served as an avenue by which those in power could raise a sword against the old order, and cut themselves completely away from that which Edmund Burke described as the “contract with eternal society.” In so doing they ended a “partnership not only between those who are living…but those who are dead, and those who are to be born” as well.
The American Revolution, on the other hand, sought not to break with living, the dead, or those who are to be born. Rather, as Russell Kirk observed, it appealed to “chartered rights,” with a firm belief “in those established rights and institutions.” In other words, the American Revolution sought a continued reliance upon those things which had characterized Western existence and practice theretofore.
Again, according to Kirk, those behind the French Revolution were enraptured by “theoretic dogma,” while the framers of the documents that emerged during the American Revolution—documents like the Declaration of Independence—were not producing “original works of political theory: instead, [they were reflecting] theories that had been discussed in America” for some time.
Regardless of what one calls them, the American Revolution’s appeal to “natural rights” (or “inalienable rights” or “absolute rights”) was ultimately an appeal to the Creator who had endowed us with those rights. And as such, it was as way of pointing man beyond mere earthly governments to a more solid foundation. But we Westerners are fast letting go of phrases like “God-given” or “absolute” to describe the foundation or immutable nature of our rights. As a result, the appeal to “human rights” continues to sever us not only from others who are living, but also those who are dead, and who are to be born.
Thus, instead of being proud of a constitution that has become “the oldest written national constitution still in force anywhere in the world,” many Westerns—both within America and without—distance themselves from the U.S. Constitution because it does not recognize and protect enough rights: or should I say it does not recognize and protect the kind of rights that are in vogue today. As the New York Times recently reported, “The Constitution is out of step with the rest of the world in failing to protect, at least in so many words, [an]…entitlement to food, education and health care.” And among the rights it does protect, some are the wrong rights, like the right to private gun ownership: a right which the Times denigrated as one that “only 2 percent of the world’s constitutions protect.”
As I indicated earlier in this piece, “human rights” and “natural rights” are “in some ways, not only unrelated but actually at enmity one with another.” So in the New York Times’ article we see expressed the mentality that education should not only be a right but an entitlement, while the God-given right to self-defense, clearly implied in the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the right to own a firearm, have both become a bit passé.
The West trades “natural rights” for “human rights” at its own peril.