In recognition of the 63rd anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, President Obama proclaimed this week Human Rights Week. Americans know a thing or two about rights, considering that the country was founded on the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” But, when the President invokes human rights, is he talking about the same concepts from the Declaration of Independence? That is to say, are human rights the same as natural rights?
At the time of the Founding, people spoke of rights as being natural (or God-given). Beginning in the 20th century, these were replaced by the thoroughly modern idea of “human rights.” Although both natural rights and human rights are universal, there are fundamental differences between the two.
First of all, natural inalienable rights do not come from government. Governments only secure these rights—that is, they create the political conditions that allow one to exercise them. Human rights, on the other hand, are bestowed by the state and have become a catch-all term for anything we desire and deem important. As a result, whereas natural rights (such as life, liberty, and property) are rights that government protects from infringement by others, human rights (such as “housing” and “leisure”) are often things that government is obligated to provide.
Secondly, natural rights, being natural, do not change over time. All men, at all times, have the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Human rights, on the other hand, constantly change. A whole cottage industry has sprung up to advance an array of new “economic and social rights” conceived of, defined by, and promoted by government and international bureaucrats.
This question was reprinted from the new First Principles page at Heritage.org. For more answers to frequently asked questions, visit http://www.heritage.org/Initiatives/First-Principles/basics.
Photo used under Creative Commons from Linh H. Nguyen.