Rights are the most precious thing that anybody can possibly have. They ensure liberty, which is the concept of personal freedom’s political arm. Without rights, one is essentially relegated to pawn status on a chessboard controlled by a select few. There can be no real self-respect or hope for the future; only a shrieking sense of fear.
Despite the utmost importance of rights, few can clearly define what they are. We all know that rights protect us from harm inflicted by others, but are rights intellectual concepts, starry-eyed ideals, divine ordinances or simply convenient social controls? History shows that rights have always been treated as flexible. Governments and religions alike have had no qualms in bending rights to suit their respective political or economic goals. As the times changed, so did the liberties afforded most people.
At the birth of the United States, our founding fathers drafted the Constitution specifically to provide an inflexible system of unparalleled personal autonomy. They viewed government as a means of controlling the threat of tyranny, not as an organ for regulating the professional and private lives of citizens. So long as one did not infringe on the liberties of a neighbor, no state intervention was needed. From this standpoint, personal rights followed as a given. Whether pertaining to one’s property, legal protections, or body, an unshakeable set of rights exists for all Americans.
This has produced a groundswell of human achievement. Members of persecuted ethnic groups in nineteenth century Europe were able to dock at the port of Savannah and build business empires which remain today. After the Civil War, Reconstruction brought full legal status to freed slaves who would go on to build universities that were and still are marvels of academia. Refugees from twentieth century wars came to America in search of a better life; now their children are public servants or officeholders. American individual liberty has allowed an untold number of the historically oppressed to take their lives into their own hands.
However, many sociologists and commentators wonder if individualism truly exists. Do people really make their own decisions, or are they consciously or subconsciously coaxed into doing things which they do not want to? In essence, are people society or is society people?
This is a very good question.