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

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, 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)

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