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Do Human Rights Exist?

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A fellow student whom I'll call 'J' from the Henry George School brought up the issue of whether human rights exist. A teacher gave an answer that is primarily utilitarian - that is, that groups gained power throughout history and basically forced the powers-that-be to recognize their rights. While this is correct as far as it goes, it doesn't address the fundamental existential question that J was getting at, and has brought up with me before, "Do human rights actually exist, and if so, why are they so easily violated in so many parts of the world?" Other students have expressed some of these sentiments to me at other times.

It is important that we nail this down, for without understanding, and accepting, human rights, Henry George's remedies have no place. If it is just a dog-eat-dog world, just find out how to be the top dog and stop worrying about anything else!

Let me answer this by analogy:
Imagine a man is hungry, and it is within your power to grant or deny him food, and you deny it to him. Now, I am not asking whether his rights have been violated, I am only asking is he hungry? That is, does the fact that he is denied food in any way negate his actual hunger? A simple reflection of this question would have to lead to an emphatic NO! He is hungry because food is missing from him, and his inherent need for food has been thwarted.
I could use other examples of things people need, and would continue to need, whether or not these things were granted to them - water, air, land of course, as George so assiduously pointed out, but you get the idea.

Now, what if we have a moral need for justice too? That is, what if we have an inborn, or at least a developing need to have our basic rights respected, such as:
A. Rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness
B. Rights to economic freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of religion (or non-religion)

Now, only some of these things (and there are more) will kill you if you are deprived of them, as would the absence of food, but no one said every right is not a real right unless its absence is fatal. A right removed is a deprivation, a missing "something" to a satisfactory and just life. It may kill you if a right is missing, or it just may make you unhappy. The slaves had no freedom, yet they still lived, but can you call that living well, or living rightfully (rightfully = with full rights)?

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Now, some of you might be saying, but wait a minute, we aren't born knowing we need all these rights. We only come to know about them later so maybe the "need" for some of them is just cultural custom? As infants, we are actually unfree and dependent as a slave when we are born. That is true. But it is also true that people change, biologically and psychologically, as they grow, and their needs, and rights, grow too. No one is born needing a mate, but by the time puberty hits, well, that is another matter. And try suppressing the right of free speech to a child who's just discovered how to talk!

Still, children, in fact, do not have the same rights as adults, a fact recognized by every culture. Prisoners may lose some of their rights because they infringed on others' rights. Drivers may lose their so-called right to drive, because it is really a privilege (as my original driver's manual said), not a right at all!

When considering rights, it is best to consider what rights are needed by the best of us, not the least of us.

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So, when we are denying rights, we are, like the hungry man who is denied food, also starving, in a sense. And that is what got George so incensed, not that this property or that piece of land was held by this minority and not that majority. If it were only the latter, that would just be the roll of the dice, a missed opportunity by those without land. Too bad for some, but great for others. The fact that someone is denied an equal right to land, and that without land, Man cannot survive even a nanosecond* is an entirely different matter, and one that should incense all of us, as it did George.

*Saying you can you can survive without air only as long as you can hold your breath actually understates the case, for without the 15 pounds/sq. inch pressure of the atmosphere, our bodies would literally explode, instantly. Tell that to someone who still insists that Land (including air) is less important than capital or labor.

-- Scott Baker, president of Common Ground-NYC, 3rd year student of the Henry George School, Writer/Senior Editor Op Ed News.


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Scott Baker is a Managing Editor & The Economics Editor at Opednews, and a blogger for Huffington Post, Daily Kos, and Global Economic Intersection.

His anthology of updated Opednews articles "America is Not Broke" was published by Tayen Lane Publishing (March, 2015) and may be found here:

Scott is a former President of Common Ground-NYC (http://commongroundnyc.org/), a Geoist/Georgist activist group. He has written dozens of articles for (more...)

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