Rights as pretexts for state power

In the course of an essay worth reading as a whole, Mark Steyn identifies a profound shift in the understanding of a human right, from a limitation on government power to a mandate for even more government power:

When it comes to human rights, I go back to 1215 and Magna Carta — or, to give it its full name, Magna Carta Libertatum. My italics: I don’t think they had them back in 1215. But they understood that “libertatum” is the word that matters. Back then, “human rights” were rights of humans, of individuals — and restraints upon the king: They’re the rights that matter: limitations upon kingly power. Eight centuries later, we have entirely inverted the principle: “Rights” are now gifts that a benign king graciously showers upon his subjects — the right to “free” health care, to affordable housing, the “right of access to a free placement service” (to quote the European Constitution’s “rights” for workers). The Democratic National Committee understands the new school of rights very well: In its recent video, Obama’s bureaucratic edict is upgraded into the “right to contraception coverage at no additional cost.” And, up against a “human right” as basic as that, how can such peripheral rights as freedom of conscience possibly compete?

The transformation of “human rights” from restraints upon state power into a pretext for state power is nicely encapsulated in the language of Article 14 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which states that everyone has the right “to receive free compulsory education.” Got that? You have the human right to be forced to do something by the government.

via The Perversion of Rights – Mark Steyn – National Review Online.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Michael B.

    “Mark Steyn identifies a profound shift in the understanding of a human right, from a limitation on government power to a mandate for even more government power”

    That’s often how it works. My right to live insists that the government has the power to kill somebody who is trying to kill me.

  • Michael B.

    “Mark Steyn identifies a profound shift in the understanding of a human right, from a limitation on government power to a mandate for even more government power”

    That’s often how it works. My right to live insists that the government has the power to kill somebody who is trying to kill me.

  • Jon

    That is, unless you are pre-birth. Then you get no such right to protection from the abortionist.

  • Jon

    That is, unless you are pre-birth. Then you get no such right to protection from the abortionist.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    To quote Albert Jay Nock: anything the government can do for you, it can also do to you.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    To quote Albert Jay Nock: anything the government can do for you, it can also do to you.

  • DonS

    I read this article over the weekend. Steyn has a way of cutting to the chase.

    This, of course, is the key:

    Back then, “human rights” were rights of humans, of individuals — and restraints upon the king: They’re the rights that matter: limitations upon kingly power. Eight centuries later, we have entirely inverted the principle: “Rights” are now gifts that a benign king graciously showers upon his subjects

    Our understanding of “rights” is shifting from the Constitutional standard of limitations on governmental power to an idea of gifts from government. Free stuff. We no longer value the liberty of ourselves or the poor suckers whom the government will coerce to provide us with our free stuff.

    Sad.

  • DonS

    I read this article over the weekend. Steyn has a way of cutting to the chase.

    This, of course, is the key:

    Back then, “human rights” were rights of humans, of individuals — and restraints upon the king: They’re the rights that matter: limitations upon kingly power. Eight centuries later, we have entirely inverted the principle: “Rights” are now gifts that a benign king graciously showers upon his subjects

    Our understanding of “rights” is shifting from the Constitutional standard of limitations on governmental power to an idea of gifts from government. Free stuff. We no longer value the liberty of ourselves or the poor suckers whom the government will coerce to provide us with our free stuff.

    Sad.

  • SKPeterson

    Michael @ 1 – Your right to life may insist upon government protection, but the existence or absence of the government does not negate the existence of your basic, inherent right. You also have the right to defend yourself from someone who is trying to kill you, i.e. violate your right to life. An insistence upon a government to enforce your right to life is different from the existence of the right itself. You are effectively commissioning a third party to enforce your right against those who would seek to deny it.

    You are right though in noting that even this limited rationale for government may expand. The insistence upon a government to protect my negative right to life transforms into an insistence upon a government to improve my life by declaring things I want from others, but don’t necessarily want to pay for, or would violate their rights, to be my “rights.” So my right to life transforms into my right to healthcare, or education, or a guaranteed wage, or to not have my view of the mountains blocked by some other guy building a house on his property.

  • SKPeterson

    Michael @ 1 – Your right to life may insist upon government protection, but the existence or absence of the government does not negate the existence of your basic, inherent right. You also have the right to defend yourself from someone who is trying to kill you, i.e. violate your right to life. An insistence upon a government to enforce your right to life is different from the existence of the right itself. You are effectively commissioning a third party to enforce your right against those who would seek to deny it.

    You are right though in noting that even this limited rationale for government may expand. The insistence upon a government to protect my negative right to life transforms into an insistence upon a government to improve my life by declaring things I want from others, but don’t necessarily want to pay for, or would violate their rights, to be my “rights.” So my right to life transforms into my right to healthcare, or education, or a guaranteed wage, or to not have my view of the mountains blocked by some other guy building a house on his property.

  • –helen

    Not a mountain in sight but I admit sympathy for my daughter-in-law, whose neighbor, with 30+ acres to choose from, built a house and stable immediately adjacent to her back fence!
    But he could do as he pleased on his property…

  • –helen

    Not a mountain in sight but I admit sympathy for my daughter-in-law, whose neighbor, with 30+ acres to choose from, built a house and stable immediately adjacent to her back fence!
    But he could do as he pleased on his property…

  • fws

    every right has a responsibility attached. i dont see a problem with the eu declaration then…. compulsory education is a great blessing to society compared to countries that dont have that, like my Brasil.

    “put the best construction on everything….”

    this instruction from our Lutheran Confessions makes being a christian in society alot easier…

  • fws

    every right has a responsibility attached. i dont see a problem with the eu declaration then…. compulsory education is a great blessing to society compared to countries that dont have that, like my Brasil.

    “put the best construction on everything….”

    this instruction from our Lutheran Confessions makes being a christian in society alot easier…

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Frank @ 7 – but, but – that might make it so much more difficult to sweep people up in political frenzies!! And we can’t have that, can we??
    :)

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Frank @ 7 – but, but – that might make it so much more difficult to sweep people up in political frenzies!! And we can’t have that, can we??
    :)

  • Joe

    Frank if you think compulsory education is a good thing, we should have a cup of coffee sometime.

  • Joe

    Frank if you think compulsory education is a good thing, we should have a cup of coffee sometime.

  • fws

    joe @ 9

    I love coffee.

    What I understand by “compulsory Education” is the there are laws that require parents to send their children to school up until a certain age.

    Yes. I think this is a great idea. I am glad that education is compulsory in this way in the usa. I live in Brasil where there is no compulsory education. We suffer greatly as a result of this.

  • fws

    joe @ 9

    I love coffee.

    What I understand by “compulsory Education” is the there are laws that require parents to send their children to school up until a certain age.

    Yes. I think this is a great idea. I am glad that education is compulsory in this way in the usa. I live in Brasil where there is no compulsory education. We suffer greatly as a result of this.

  • fws

    consider this, in limited government terms, a way to ensure that there are people who can swear to “defend the constitution” in the sense that the government insists that the population is able to read it and so has laws to ensure that.

    Luther and the early Lutherans , by the way, along with our Lutheran Confessions, are against the idea that it is wrong morally for the government to be concerned with the positive needs of the population as opposed to only the negative need for security in the form of police, fire and military.

    Luther said that loaves of bread should be placed on the coat of arms of all governments to remind them of what their job is….. And this saying is contained in our Lutheran Confessions as a point of doctrine that Lutherans are to believe, teach and confess…..

  • fws

    consider this, in limited government terms, a way to ensure that there are people who can swear to “defend the constitution” in the sense that the government insists that the population is able to read it and so has laws to ensure that.

    Luther and the early Lutherans , by the way, along with our Lutheran Confessions, are against the idea that it is wrong morally for the government to be concerned with the positive needs of the population as opposed to only the negative need for security in the form of police, fire and military.

    Luther said that loaves of bread should be placed on the coat of arms of all governments to remind them of what their job is….. And this saying is contained in our Lutheran Confessions as a point of doctrine that Lutherans are to believe, teach and confess…..

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