There is a common saying that human rights are what make us human. But with the modern expansion of human rights beyond its classical origins, are we becoming more human, or less?
This week, The New Zealand Initiative hosted Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, who spoke on freedom, “the fundamental human right.” Tim Wilson argued that human rights are supposed to be sacrosanct principles, and criticised the expansion of human rights from their classical liberal origins.
The traditional liberal human rights were narrow, confined to freedoms such as freedom of speech, association, movement, worship and property rights. The government’s role was simply to protect those rights.
Modern society has deviated from these fundamentals, and human rights can now include everything from the right to education, right to shelter, right to non-discrimination, right to a decent wage, and the latest: the right to be forgotten.
The point Tim Wilson makes is that these social aspirations are not the same as human rights. Society may aspire to have equal access to education and shelter, or anonymity and privacy for internet users, but these should not be conflated with human rights.
I think this is a critical point. True human rights are rights that protect us, not rights that the Government gives us.
This is because, often, if not always, these social aspirations come at the cost of freedom. While they may be worthy goals, they should not automatically be given equal status to the classical human rights.
Human rights were originally enacted to protect the individual from state tyranny, and necessarily limited the power of the state. Social aspirations masquerading as rights expand the power of the state.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t aspire as a society to make sure everyone has education and shelter. But we should not talk about this as a human right.