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

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 Madison’s paper is one of the most important American historical documents.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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