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

Madison referred to the various social groups as ‘factions’. He believed that a strong state, with an effective law enforcement apparatus, is the best solution to resolving such conflicts. Madison equally respected the spirit of republicanism. His favouring of a strong state is not to disenfranchise social rights but to unite various groups. It is also meant to avoid partisanship on part of the state. For this reason, Madison preferred representative democracy over direct democracy. Interestingly, this view resonates with the fear of mob-rule that Socrates was apprehensive about. Hence, while the founding fathers inclined towards creating a liberal-democratic framework for the Constitution, there were reservations expressed by people like Madison. (Wills, 1982) It is not surprising then, that the institution of slavery persisted in America for as long as it did. It is testament to the chequered social rights record of the American legislatures.

T.H. Marshall’s influential essay titled Social Citizenship directly addresses the nature and scope of social rights. Drawing from the political science term ‘social contract’, Marshall argues that the state is obliged to offer its citizens a basic set of rights. These include economic security, personal safety and maintenance of human dignity. Besides, Marshall outlines three key determinants for the evolution of social rights in a democratic country. Firstly, economic disparity should be alleviated. The divide between the haves and the have-nots have to be moderated. Secondly, the state should act to facilitate access to education for all. That way a common culture and a collective national experience could be nurtured. Thirdly, citizenships should be made to actively participate in political affairs. (Marshall, 1950) In the liberal-democratic set up, their responsibility goes beyond casting a vote once in five years.
So, Marshall not only expresses the role and responsibility of the state but also that of citizens. This two way interaction is imperative for ensuring that social rights are abreast with evolving cultural values. When we look at the policy making achievements of major national governments in the 20th century, we find a few exemplary moments. The passing of the New Deal by Franklin D. Roosevelt at the end of the Great Depression is one such. It was a remarkable moment in the history of the United States when the government endowed its citizens with a few salient social rights. The Social Security Act was part of the New Deal, which provided insurance to unemployed labour force. The Medicare and Medicaid programs were also the products of New Deal measures. Hence, according to T.H. Marshall, the right to education and the right to social welfare are two key domains of social rights. In his essay, Marshall goes on to make a cogent argument as to why the state should take up responsibility in ensuring the exercise of these social rights.

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