Why Individual Rights Matter

After reading Locke and Hobbes, the popularizers of individual rights, I struggled with justifying their arguments to myself. It wasn’t until reading F.A. Hayek that I arrived at a clear reason for rights. Hayek did not base his claim in anything but what was without a doubt true: human reason is limited; our knowledge of the world is limited. Similar in a way to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Hayek also sought to put human capabilities in their rightful, yet limited, place. As he explained in The Fatal Conceit and The Constitution of Liberty, man’s individual liberty came not out of any knowledge of their benefits (and they have benefits), but rather came about through a process of societal evolution. In short, rights came about because they proved to be the most beneficial out of any idea out there. Were they not beneficial, they would have died out, as segments of species die out when they demonstrate an inadequacy in the genetic arena. We cannot know what works until it has been tried.

This is why communism and other ideologies that rely so heavily on human reason fail: they claim to know the future, not just for themselves, but for all who reside within their country’s borders. Individual rights gives us a system where the only person whose future I attempt to control is my own. 

Individual rights not only give societies the best possible outcome, but do another thing. They give individuals responsibility over their own lives. Free to choose between good and bad (within the confines that those rights impose of course) the individual truly directs his own life as much as he can. After all, are we really choosing the good if we are forbidden from choosing the bad? As Hayek put it, liberty is the ability to do good, when one has the ability to do wrong. On a deeper level, the individual only lives her most fulfilling life when she has the ability to decide her course. This has ramifications for both conservative and liberal policymakers who seek to remove this responsibility from the individual, and is an issue that will influence my criticisms of public policy measures taken. 

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