I am sure that the events of 2020 have made a lot of people think about the fitness of purpose of the various systems that we have used to build the world around us. Quite apart from the natural environment positively yelling at us with murder hornets, more hurricanes in a season than there are letters in the alphabet, fires on two continents that are the biggest that have ever been seen, more than a billion animals being destroyed by said fires, as well as the plague of the coronavirus, we are discovering that the rich and powerful people who own and run the world are doing their level best to abrogate any kind of connection that they have to the rest of society.
One of those systems which we use to construct the world, is the idea of human rights. However during this time of coronavirus, I am starting to be convinced that that idea which underpins a lot of how we conceive of western liberal democracies is inadequate and was probably never fit for purpose in the first place. As an idea which is used to build a model, the idea of human rights like every other idea should be subject to testing and abandoning if it doesn't work.
A right at law is a claim to be able to do something or a claim upon some property whether real or intangible. All of the human rights that we commonly think of, such as the right to free speech, to get an education, to health care, the right to bear arms, the right to political association and protest and what not, are all claims upon real services and or claims upon intangible property.
The modern idea of human rights kind of roughly began in the late enlightenment when ideas such as absolute monarchy and the beginning of determination through the instrument of the franchise began to take off. In English and Scottish law, which I am most familiar with, the Bill Of Rights Act and the Scottish Claim Of Right were both enacted in 1689 in the wake of the English Civil War in which a king lost his head and the following period known as the Glorious Revolution in which the conception of rights are set up in opposition to and to place limits upon the monarchy.
Except, the problem with a right being claimed (such as free speech, health care, rambling, bearing arms) is that although an individual can claim said right, there are never usually any formal obligations, duties, responsibilities etc. which are framed in relation to that right. Freedom to do something should be tied with the responsibility to accept the consequences of doing the thing, or the consequences which arise as a result of the thing being claimed. Invariably the people who call for a right to do something from a position of power, also want to be untied from consequences.
Australia has had a number of high profile cases where someone exerting their right to free speech has caused damage to someone else and a campaign has been waged quite brutally in the press for the removal of any consequences of that same free speech. Defenders of the absolute right to free speech are arguing that they should have the ability to cause damage and not be held responsible. The only logical explanation is that the defenders of the absolute right to free speech want to use it as a weapon to beat down on people.
Although not explicitly said, the wish to be free from consequences of one's actions is actually the claiming of a new right to be exempt from law. Law generally imposes obligations and duties upon people through direction and instruction but one of the greatest principles of law is that everyone should be subject to it; including the King.
The other very major thing that 2020 has brought into sharp focus is that if someone else doesn't care what rights you have, then what good is it? You can have the right to vote and the right to be free from slavery but if rich and powerful people don't think that you are worthy enough to extend basic standards of living and decency to, then you can claim all of the rights that you like and it ain't gonna make a lick of difference. There will still be people who want to suppress people's right to vote, people who want to pay other people absolutely nothing for their work if they can get away with it, and people who will simultaneously let others live in squalor while they also demand subsidies for their own private privilege and patronage.
I am not convinced that United States citizens actually have the right to vote expressed positively in law. In consequence, the ability for self-interested parties to suppress that right, if it existed at all, is far easier than the framework in Australia where it is expressed as a duty and where the state is obligated to make sure that people can fulfill their legally imposed duty to vote. This explains why in a place like Texas, there is a solitary polling place in a predominantly black portion of Houston with half a million people but way out in the westernmost county with a population of about six thousand white people there are fourteen. People's right to vote might very well be identical but their ability to do so because of the infrastructure provided by the state, is not.
The right to healthcare which probably exists in Australia, does not exist in the United States and if you engage with discussions online then you can find people who are very ready to vigorously tell you that healthcare isn't a right. In the United States, they are absolutely correct since the legal claim upon what should be pretty basic services, simply does not exist. Either way, even in Australia if I present myself at a private hospital, there is no obligation upon them to treat me, including if I present with a potentially life threatening issue.
The big problem that I see with the idea of human rights as a concept is that it seems to exactly end at the fingertips of an individual. Someone can claim all of the rights that they want to in the world but it is exactly of zero good if there is no obligation on others to do anything about them.
I will freely admit at this point that I have no idea how to enforce obligations except through operation of law. Opponents quite rightly will criticise this as coercion by force through the power of the state and while this is absolutely true, actual governance is exactly a zero sum game and if the state doesn't enforce something through force and coercion then private entities will exact their own private force and coercion. In principle that explains why the United States is roughly thirty times more violent in terms of homicide.
The difficulty is that the concepts of obligation and duty can only really be imposed by at least some coercion by the state because the inescapable central feature of human nature is that people are hideously selfish and sometimes violent in enforcing their own private selfishness.