Natural rights celebrated democracy; human rights emasculate it

Jon Holbrook in Spiked:

Paine_rightsAlthough the word ‘rights’ appears in ‘natural rights’ and ‘human rights’, the two concepts are profoundly different. One seeks to restrict the power of government and the other seeks to expand it. Whereas natural rights seek freedom from the state, human rights seek the state’s protection and assistance. More importantly, and this is the point rarely appreciated by today’s human-rights industry, whereas natural rights made democracy possible, the human-rights discourse is securing democracy’s emasculation. Democracy can only thrive if three conditions are satisfied: (a) man is treated as rational, (b) the state is restrained and (c) politics is freed of legal constraints. Whereas the natural-rights advocate champions each condition, the human-rights advocate assumes the first condition is impossible and the next two are undesirable.

Tom Paine, an English radical who participated in the American Revolution, wrote Rights of Man in defence of the French Revolution of 1789. His celebration of natural rights was premised on his belief in human rationality. He noted that ignorance, once dispelled, could not be re-established – ‘[it] is only the absence of knowledge’ that could keep a man ignorant. He observed that while man ‘may be kept ignorant, he cannot be made ignorant’. Truth, said Paine, is so irresistible ‘that all it asks – and all it wants – is the liberty of appearing’. Paine’s recognition of man’s rationality led to his celebration of natural rights. For if truth needed only to be revealed in order to be supported, then man needed freedom to seek it, discuss it, promote it and act on it. Left to his own devices, man would find truth and cooperate with his fellow citizens to create a mutually beneficial society. With a human-rights approach, however, man is seen as less than rational. From this perspective, if man is left to his own devices, then all sorts of negative consequences follow: minorities tend to be oppressed by majorities; the weak tend to fall prey to the powerful; the vulnerable tend to suffer at the hands of the strong; and the poor tend to be exploited by the rich.

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