One reason for studying politics is to understand the processes surrounding ‘who gets what, when, and how’(Peters, 23). These processes are inextricably bound to the relationship that states forge with their citizens and are primarily accomplished through formalised organisational state structures (Peters, 25).
I suggest the concept of ‘rights’ is central to the study of politics because the role of that concept has played in the actual practice of Western politics has often not turned out as expected.
From the 17th century, many Western states have focused on ensuring they do not unjustifiably infringe upon certain ‘indefeasible’ and ‘hereditary’ rights of their citizens (Paine, 472). Hobbes held that even when infringement is justifiable, rulers ought first to obtain consent (legitimate authority) from their citizens (Tuck, 78). Rousseau ups the ante; he says the goal of all state legislation should be to ensure ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ for all citizens (Wokler, 17).
No longer must states simply refrain from infringing on the rights of their citizens, but they now must take positive steps to ensure them. For example, Hobbes, keen to avoid the ‘nasty’ and ‘brutish’ life of man living in a political vacuum (i.e. anarchy), declared rulers had a duty to ‘ensure a safe space’ for everyday life (Miller, 22). Bentham (Course materials 3.3) said the states should secure the greatest happiness of the greatest number of citizens which included removing obstacles to education. In 1960’s America, military force was used by the state to guarantee the constitutional ‘rights’ of Negroes to have equal access to higher education (Kennedy, “Civil Rights Message”).
It is arguable that instead of making citizens safer, freer, and/or happier the concept of ‘rights’ has often achieved the opposite. McKelvey (2020) reports that during the current Covid-19 pandemic, many Americans cite constitutionally enshrined liberties to deny laws requiring facial coverings to protect not only their own health but also that of fellow citizens. Delton (2017) suggests the alt-right, dedicated to destroying ‘liberal cultural hegemony’, have been deliberately weaponizing the right of free speech at universities by promoting unsavoury spectacles and instigating violence. However authorities choose to react, their ‘legitimacy’ is undermined.
Have we in the 21st century come full circle back to Hobbes’s initial 17th century concerns?
If so, I suggest that is because we have put more effort ensuring those ‘indefeasible’ and ‘hereditary’ are enforced rather than understanding the real role they play in the actual practice of Western politics.
Black, Henry Campbell. (1979). Black’s Law Dictionary. St. Paul: West Publishing.
Butler, Christopher (2002). Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Callinicos, Alex. (2004). ‘Marxism and Politics’, in Leftwich, A. (ed). What is Politics? Malden: Polity Press, pp. 53-66.
“Communism”. (2020). Martin Luther King, Jr. – Political and Social Views; Stanford. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/communism. Accessed 25 October 2020.
Delton, Jennifer. (2017). “When ‘free speech’ becomes a political weapon”. The Washington Post; 22 August 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2017/08/22/when-free-speech-becomes-a-political-weapon/. Accessed 25 October 2020.
Grosby, Steven (2005). Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Israel, Jonathan. (2012). Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human rights 1750-1790. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kenney, John F. “Civil Rights Message”. SoJust: Speeches on Social Justice, 2006-2018, www.sojust.net/speeches/jfk_civil_rights.html.
Martin, Michel. (2010). “How Communism Brought Racial Equality to the South’. NPR News, 22 August 2017. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123771194. Accessed 25 October 2020.
McKelvey, Tara. (2020). “Coronavirus: Why are Americans so angry about masks?” BBC News, 20 July 2020; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-53477121. Accessed 25 October 2020.
Miller, David. (2003). Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Paine, Thomas. (1995). ‘The Rights of Man’, in Kramnick, I. (ed). The Portable Enlightenment Reader. London: Penguin, pp 469-472. Black, Henry Campbell. (1979). Black’s Law Dictionary. St. Paul: West Publishing.
Peters, B Guy. (2004). ‘Politics is About Governing’, in Leftwich, A. (ed). What is Politics? Malden: Polity Press, pp. 23-40.
Squires, Judith. (2004). “Politics Beyond Boundaries: A Feminist Perspective’, in Leftwich, A. (ed). What is Politics? Malden: Polity Press, pp. 119-134.
Tuck, Richard. (2008). Hobbes: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wokler, Robert. (2001). Rousseau: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 Squires (119-121) suggests politics should be defined broader to include the discourse of power whenever and wherever social relations are ordered. This essay adopts the more restricted definition of politics suggested by Squires (132) although I agree that especially regarding feminism, such a narrow definition is not only unhelpful but harmful.
 I define ‘rights’ as (1) ‘natural’, in the sense that they ‘grow from the nature of men and depend upon his personality’ and (2) created by ‘positive laws unacted by a duly constitutional government’ to create ‘an orderly civilized society’ (Black, 925).
 I define ‘state’ as a ‘structure’ that exercises territorial ‘sovereignty’ through laws regulating the relationship of individuals within that territory (Grosby, 22).
Leave a Reply