Liberals and libertarians have been arguing for decades about what constitutes a legitimate right (one which the state must respect). Liberals argue that these rights should include many positive...

Liberals and libertarians have been arguing for decades about what constitutes a legitimate right (one which the state must respect). Liberals argue that these rights should include many positive as well as negative rights; libertarians that only negative rights need be accepted.

1) Which of these two views do you think is the correct one? Why?

2) What are some of the rights contained in the US Bill of Rights and the UN Declaration of Human Rights that you think are the most important today?

Expert Answers
kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A fundamental distinction between liberals and libertarians involves the latter's willingness to tolerate virtually any activity that does not involve violence or harm to others. Libertarians inhabit a position along the political spectrum that can be considered half-liberal and half-conservative. They simply oppose what they consider government intervention in areas that incorporate policy preferences of both major political parties. For example, they are staunch supporters of free-market capitalist economics, but they also support abortion rights. They oppose the Selective Service system but support a strong national defense. They support liberalization of drug laws but oppose gun control. In short, there is something there for everyone. Conversely, there is much about libertarianism to oppose, depending upon one's individual perspective.

The student's question references "negative rights." One can assume that this means areas such as legalization of currently illegal narcotics, a particularly complicated question given the legitimate public health issues involved. Arguments are routinely advanced supporting the decriminalization or legalization of currently proscribed narcotics.

Liberals, in contrast to libertarians, generally support far greater levels of government involvement in the day-to-day lives of the citizenry. They tend to support far greater levels of government intervention in the economy and into how business is routinely conducted. They typically support staunch measures to limit the availability of firearms.

With which perspective any individual agrees is entirely personal. It is up to the student posing the question to consider the two perspectives and arrive at his or her own conclusion. With respect to the second of the two questions posed--which of the rights included in the US Bill of Rights and in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights--are the most important, it is difficult to decide which among what are considered fundamental rights are more important. Given the historical context in which the first ten amendments to the US Constitution were written, however, it is possible to suggest that some of these amendments could be considered more important than others. The First Amendment in particular, which guarantees the freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and of the press, is clearly more important today than, say, the Third Amendment, which proscribes the stationing of military personnel in private homes without the consent of the homeowners. The Third Amendment was a clear attempt to address an issue of the time, specifically the British Army's practice of placing its troops in the homes of colonialists irrespective of the the colonists' wishes.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights similarly has provisions that can be considered of less importance than others. For example, Article 3 of the Declaration states: "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person." Article 5 states: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." The merits of these articles is beyond dispute, although the issue of defining "torture" is apparently a little more complicated than most imagined, as the debate over the use of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" in the War on Terror illustrated. Contrast these articles with Article 27: 

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Again, contrast the merits of guaranteeing freedom from slavery or torture with those guarantees specified in Article 29:

(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

While sound arguments can no doubt be made for the "rights" guaranteed in Articles 27 and 29, as well as with others in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, if one is compelled by circumstances to select those that are more important, the choice seems relatively simple.

To conclude, selecting which among a list of "rights" are more important than others is a bit subjective. It is up to the individual student to consider the origins and continued relevance of these documents.