Should a liberal-democratic government protect the ‘social rights’ of its citizens?

Length: 983 words

It is self-evidently true that a liberal-democratic government should protect the ‘social rights’ of its citizens. There are copious arguments from various eminent thinkers that back up this claim. Ranging across eras and philosophical schools, various intellectuals have endorsed the protection of social rights of citizens. This essay will draw upon the ideas of philosopher Socrates (through his disciple Plato), American founding father James Madison, and 20th century political scientist T.H. Marshall. In doing so, the essay will back the position that a liberal-democratic government should protect the ‘social-rights’ of its citizens.

Social rights can be loosely defined as those rights which are operant in public places. While this is not a legal definition of the term, it serves as a guideline for the essay. In a nation with diverse racial, ethnic and religious demography as the United States, it is expected that the laws reflect secularism and social equity. These manifest as freedom of religious expression, separation of church and state, absence of discrimination on gender, racial or religious terms, etc. While these rights are nominally exercised in varying degrees, there is still a tendency for regression. Evidence from several sociological studies point to the regular occurrence of hate crimes, misogyny,

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religious extremism, etc. At one level these are devious socio-cultural trends. At a much deeper level, they bring to question the liberal-democratic ethos of the nation’s polity. It points to the failure of the state in protecting the self-evident social rights of its citizens. This failure appears all the more acute when we consider the provisions of the Universal Declaration, which “includes economic and social “rights” that are by no means on par with inherent, or natural, rights. Article 12, for example, insists no one should suffer “attacks upon his honour and reputation.” Article 24 claims “everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including … periodic holidays with pay.”” (“Rethinking the First Freedom,” 2006)

As far back as two millennia ago, Plato had made a cogent argument in favour of social rights. In his classic work The Republic a first-hand account of his various dialogues is recorded by his principal disciple Plato. Being the most eminent philosopher of Athens circa 4th century BC, Socrates deliberated on various aspects of a just and equitable city-state. Back in his time terms such as human rights and fundamental rights were not in currency. So what we find in The Republic are the abstractions of these specific political science terms. Instead of rights, Socrates talks in general about justice and fairness. Socrates’ preoccupation was not only with identifying the best political system but also with configuring the ideal citizen. The dialogues discuss the pros and cons of various hypothetical cities and their systems of administration. Brought into debate are the role of citizenship and whether acting justly will fetch rewards for the citizen. The value of acting as responsible citizens is inquired in detail. The dialoguers eventually come to a consensus and identify Kallipolis as an ideal city-state. It is ruled by philosopher-kings and its regime actively promotes social rights. (Pappas, 1995)

In The Republic, there is no direct reference to individual or social rights. Instead, the recurring focus is on justice. It should be remembered that the ideal city-state of Kallipolis does not have a democratic polity. It is ruled by philosopher-kings and includes elements of monarchy and aristocracy. Indeed, Socrates held a rather disparaging view of democracy, placing it at the bottom of the hierarchy of merit. At the top of the pyramid of ideal systems is monarchy, followed by timocracy (the rule by the honoured), followed by oligarchy (the rule by the rich), and lastly democracy. Despite Socrates’ contempt for democracy, the political structure of Kallipolis has its own set of problems. As political scientist J. Sushytska points out,

“The luxurious city in which the philosopher is the ruler is a priori unhealthy, or problem-ridden. It is supposed to provide an alternative to the rule of the many after the disintegration of the archaic society, yet proves to be a complete fiasco. Making the philosopher rule obstructs the movement between the classes that make up this city and between the differences that necessarily appear in it.” (Sushytska, 2012)

The sense in which Socrates uses democracy is as in how we presently use the term mobocracy – the rule by the many. The problem with democracy, according to Socrates, was its allowance for all social and cultural practices. The emphasis on liberty and equality, Socrates feared, might easily lead to lack of law and order. If such is the case, democracy might rapidly disintegrate into tyranny. While Socrates has misgivings about certain versions of direct democracy, the overall theme in The Republic is in support of social rights. Hence drawing upon this example modern liberal-democratic nations should protect the social rights of its citizens.

Like Socrates, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, James Madison had made the case for social rights in the Federalist Paper No. 10. Madison’s paper is one of the most important American historical documents. One of the main focus areas of the tract is the role of the state in managing conflicting interests of various demographic groups. Within the broad citizenship to the nation, each individual belongs to different cultural, linguistic and economic groups. The conflicts that are problematic are those where the exercise of the rights of one individual interjects with that of another. The interaction of the rights of an individual over others is a subset of collective rights exercised by communities. Take say the issue of religious practice. Madison worried that
“freedom of conscience would be threatened if government supported some religions (at the expense of others)…He concluded that government should not interfere with religion in any way. But, there are differences between government not interfering with religion and government banning religion within public spheres. Is not the banning an interference of sorts?” (Zarra, 2005)

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