The good news is that everyone seems to be talking about rights these days. The bad news is that few of them agree on the meaning of the word.
Maybe the widespread interest was triggered by the enactment of the Charter of Rights a decade ago. Certainly, the Charter gets a lot of press. For example, Globe and Mail columnist Michael Valpy recently suggested that the Charter could be improved by adding a right to food.
He says the Supreme Court of Canada has hinted that they might recognize rights to food, clothing and housing under Section 7 of the Charter, which guarantees "security of the person."
It has been some years now since manna fell from heaven, so it's a little difficult to imagine where, exactly, the food is supposed to come from. Obviously, the "right" alone is not going to make food appear; otherwise, places like Ethiopia could have solved their starvation problem years ago, simply by enacting some rights for their people.
No, the food is going to have to be produced, using somebody's labour and somebody's equipment. Rights imply obligations, and one person's right to food implies somebody else's obligation to provide it.
But wait a second--if one person has a right to the labour of others, without any mention of remuneration, isn't this what we used to call slavery? What happened to that old-fashioned right, liberty, for those whose task it would be to provide the food?
When classical liberals like John Locke and Adam Smith spoke of rights, they meant simply an entitlement not to be interfered with. Your right to life imposed on others only the negative obligation to refrain from killing you. It didn't impose a positive obligation to provide food, shelter, employment or medical care.
Similarly, a right to freedom of speech simply meant that no-one could stop you from espousing and professing, using your own resources, whatever views you wished. It didn't mean that anyone else had to provide you with a lecture hall, or had a duty to listen to your blather.
The reason for this bare-bones formulation was simple: one person's rights can't violate another's. If they do, then what we're talking about can't properly be called a right.
There are other fundamental differences between what we have traditionally called rights and the modern-day privileges that some commentators are trying to foist upon us as rights.
A genuine right, to be implemented, requires nothing more than an act of will on the part of other human beings. If everyone agrees that they will not kill other people, then everyone's right to life is assured. But no amount of mental discipline or good intentions is going to fulfil the "right" to food.
A genuine right is independent of time, place, and natural disaster. The right not to be killed can be fulfilled equally in every era, and in every corner of the globe. But it has only been within the past century, and only in certain countries, that the wealth has existed to even contemplate a guarantee of universal food. It is absurd to speak of those who starved to death in bygone droughts and potato blights as having died of violations of their rights.
To the classical liberal, the state did not exist to create rights. Its function was to recognize pre-existing rights and establish mechanisms for enforcing rights against attempted violation by others.
Today's social activists want to make the state the source of all rights. At the whim of the clique in power, new rights would be concocted and old ones revoked.
Ironically, the state has proven throughout history to be the most frequent violator of rights. The state has murdered and robbed on an unprecedented scale. Is this the agency we're supposed to trust to dole out our rights?
In a recent speech, Rosalie Abella, chairperson of the Ontario Law Reform Commission, called the classical liberal view of rights "a good beginning." Incomprehensibly, she then went on to advocate affirmative action policies which would effectively nullify most classical liberal rights. She called her new policies "rights" and relegated all old rights to the category of "civil liberties."
I don't agree with Ms. Abella that affirmative action is moral, fair, or necessary. But I object even more strongly to her and Mr. Valpy's misuse of the word "rights." Eventually, misuse of the word will destroy the concept.
Just look at what has happened to the word "liberal." It now means exactly the opposite of what it meant a century ago among those we're now forced to call "classical" liberals.
George Orwell understood the connection: "It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words....In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it."
So go ahead and advocate wealth redistribution, or reverse discrimination, if that's what you believe in, but don't call them rights. Give them their proper descriptions: privileges, prerogatives, priorities, favouritism. Make up a new word if none of the old ones suit you. But please don't use the language of liberty to destroy what little liberty we have left.