Freedom, the fundamental human right

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 20 June 2014

In today’s society, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone to object to human rights. Even the nastiest dictatorships still try to maintain at least the semblance of a human rights culture, even if they violate these rights constantly.

What is far more difficult to ascertain, especially in Western, liberal democracies, is what human rights mean in practice. They have a certain Alice in Wonderland quality about them. The term ‘human rights’ means just what you choose it to mean – neither more nor less.

Freedom of speech is a good example. Who would be against something as noble and sacred as the freedom to say what you want? But dig just a little bit deeper, and the responses become far more nuanced.

You may be all in favour of free speech, but some people believe allowing tobacco companies to freely advertise their products requires an exception, as might donations to political campaigns, or statements that might impinge upon another person’s reputation. The devil is in the detail.

The problem gets even worse if you are trying to define what a human right is, and what is not. There are two schools of thought and they can be broadly defined as negative/liberal and positive/socialist.

The classical liberal approach views rights as a defence against the power of the state. Rights are negative in this way because they are negative freedoms, meaning you are free from something, rather than free to do something. It is the human right not to be interfered with, eg not with your views and beliefs, not in the enjoyment of your property, not in who you associate with.

The socialist approach goes beyond this. It sees human rights as a positive right to something. Rather than averting the interference of the state, it requires the state to deliver on these rights. Human rights, rather than being the birth rights of the individual, in this sense, become entitlements granted by government.

In a couple of weeks, The New Zealand Initiative will be hosting Australia’s new Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson. He has triggered a debate across the Tasman on what human rights should be, and he strongly advocates a return to a much narrower definition with the focus on freedom of association, religion, expression and property.

This leaves freedom as the fundamental human right. Incidentally, this is also the title of Tim Wilson’s lecture. We hope to see you there and look forward to a robust debate.

Tim Wilson will be speaking to The New Zealand Initiative in:
Auckland, 30 June & Wellington, 1 July