What are civil rights?

What are civil rights?

What is a ‘right’?

A ‘right’ is an entitlement (OED) — something due to someone because of their relationship with a person or body empowered and able to deliver that entitlement. There can be no misunderstanding:  a ‘right’ is ‘something one is entitled to’. The topic is germane today, not only in Israel and the US, but in most of the world’s few democracies.

What are ‘civil’ rights? They are entitlements owed by a civic entity (municipality, city, province or nation) towards its citizens, by virtue of their being citizens.

But there’s a drawback. Can the civic entity ensure that all citizens receive those entitlements? The entity must have sufficient money, enough citizens with the skills needed to provide the funded services and the ability to provide these entitlements regardless of its geographic size.

In practice, the ‘entitlements’ become no more than citizens’ political demands. Each demand, bar one, (detailed below) requires funding to pay people to provide those services. All compete for funding. Civic entities, at all levels, must budget-making political decisions about priority. Elections in the world’s 30 or so democracies are characterized by pre-election promises by politicians, often in response to the demands of their citizen voters.

Consider a few such demands, from the most basic, the public’s health: clean drinkable water, food, sewerage, clean air, hygienic housing. Then individuals’ health services, and, dependent on means of transport, schooling. Citizens’ being protected from enemies and criminals need defense and police. All these demands necessitate some citizens’ work in providing these services.

From that point on, there is an almost endless list of citizens’ demands — sporting facilities, the arts, higher education and research etc. The demand for free speech is limited by the laws of libel and of treason, which cost money and require services to implement. Even the demand to protest costs money — a police presence, control of traffic and of traffic lights etc. No country of any size can afford to meet all those demands everywhere.

But there is one ‘right’ which requires no funding and no services by any other citizen.

Most western intellectuals discussing civil rights have not experienced life in a totalitarian state. They have described desiderata (not rights), which are still ‘honoured more in the breach than in the observance’ in about 110 states amongst the UN’s 140 members, some of whom still practise slavery. The UN Human Rights committee has a minority of members from free countries.

Emigrés from a totalitarian state have a vastly different view of civil rights. Think, for a moment, about famous forced emigrés and some who experienced internal exile: Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, Marc Chagall, Stefan Zweig, Paul Celan, Primo Levi, Eli Wiesel, Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, the Russians — Joseph Brodsky, Vladimir Nabokov, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov — and the many others imprisoned in other totalitarian states.

To quote Itzhak Rabin, “every country must protect and preserve the key element of its national ethos: the lives of its citizens.” That costs money and requires other citizens’ services.

The only ‘right’ or ‘entitlement’ in the contract between a citizen and his or her civil government is that the citizen can expect not to be oppressed, arrested, kidnapped, incarcerated or murdered by his or her own government. The primary (costless) duty towards its own citizens is to abstain from any such assault.

This entitlement does not compete for funding; it needs none. No cost is involved in not passing an oppressive law. This ‘entitlement’ demands no services from anyone.

It is time that the so-called ‘rights’, as listed in the UN Declaration, were recognised for what they are — political demands — no more and no less — none, bar one, for the reasons above, with any special privilege. As for ‘human rights’, that’s for a separate discussion.

About the Author
Dr Peter Chester Arnold OAM, a graduate in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, is the Past President of the Association of Medical Students of South Africa, the General Practitioners' Society in Australia, and chaired the Australian Medical Association, nationally and in New South Wales, as well as the Deputy President of the New South Wales Medical Board. He's also authored more than 50 pieces each in the British Medical Journal and the Medical Journal of Australia, and more than 100 articles for Australian medical newsletters/magazines. He's been a professional editor for more than 30 years on politics, sociology, medicine, history and Holocaust studies.
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