A short history of the social rights myth

Today, many industrialized nations have developed a multitude of social programmes, and these have become so entrenched that theorists, and politicians alike, claim the ‘right’ of citizens to their services. We are told we have a right to health care, education, unemployment insurance, and so on. Indeed, Jack Straw, the UK Justice Minister, recently proposed to codify these entitlements in a new British Bill of Rights. But do we, as citizens of developed nations, actually have these rights?

The development of ‘rights’

The term ‘right’ has come to characterize anything to which either the government or the citizenry feel they can make a fundamental claim to – but this is to express a deep misunderstanding of rights and their traditional link to civil liberties. Instead, a definition of rights has evolved which people almost universally accept but which remains false and untrue to their original intention. Rights began as protections against what the state could not do to a citizen; now they have become what the government must do for an individual.

The concept of rights first developed with 17th and 18th Century writers such as Hobbes, whose argument centred on the natural rights of humans to their own life and a freedom to socially contract with one another for protection, and Locke, who argued for non-interference by the state. People found themselves under physical threat from others and formed states to provide mutual protection. They knew that they could better secure themselves collectively than individually. Naturally, given that the state was formed to protect the right to life, the state could not remove that right without the due process. Locke’s contribution was to add liberty and property to the list of natural rights.

Manifestations of these rights appear throughout the great documents of western civilization. By the time of the American Revolution and the publication of The Wealth of Nations (1776), fundamental rights of citizens against their government had been established in England; and soon after enshrined in the United States’ Bill of Rights. These were the rights outlined by a nation newly free of unrepresentative rule, a clear example of the potential abuses of the state. They outlined and reiterated the liberal rights against arbitrary imprisonment and the interference of the state.

By this time, however, a sense was growing of further capabilities of cooperative efforts, beyond national defence and internal policing. Ideas began to form around other activities that people could agree to better achieve collectively, rather than singularly. These were often services that, by their implementation, would benefit the public at large and retained the original spirit of the state as a cooperative effort of individuals to better achieve their idea of the good life. By this time, education and provisions for the ill were often seen as beneficial to society and socially desirable; even Adam Smith, in Book V of The Wealth of Nations, called for a rudimentary education ensured by a government.

Smith paints a picture of a parish tutor, perhaps subsidized by the community coffer but employed primarily by the student’s parents to ensure his effort. Smith’s mention of education might be used to advocate the universal policies of today, but we must remember that his vision of education was drastically different. Smith saw education as a public good that served not just the individual, but also the community: the major benefit being a more educated populace. He argued that, “An instructed and intelligent people besides are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant one.” The education of the populace was so important for the proper functioning of society that public funding may be beneficial, when properly directed.

Smith, however, and the writers of the liberal cannon which followed, never would have referred to education or any other public good as a ‘right’. It was a service that the public had decided would be advantageous to their community, and its benefits were aimed more at the community than the individual.

Over time, however, states began to implement policies and programmes intended to ease the pressure on individuals from certain negative externalities of early capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. In its infant forms, England’s Poor Laws and ‘poor houses’ provided a minimal level of care to keep people from complete destitution. The US had enshrined traditional liberal rights in the Constitution, but by the end of the 19th century many of the newly formed Western states included in their constitutions a guarantee to social services like education, disability and old age care. While these were not federal programmes (not yet), states had enshrined in their constitutions the guarantee to citizens of social services, indicative of the populist sentiment of the day. Although populist ideas were growing, the classical conception of rights continued to have strong advocates. In the 1830s, Jeremy Bentham referred to classic rights not as ‘rights’ but as ‘securities against misrule’. This is perhaps the most accurate characterization of rights in the liberal tradition, disallowing the confusion that has occurred today in the idea of social rights.

The rise of the welfare state

A real turning point in welfare policy came in the first half of the 20th century and in the subsequent changing conception of the state. Before both the world wars, economists like JA Hobson and LT Hobhouse had begun advocating economic interventionism and ‘welfare economics’ – plans to alter the workings of the economic system itself to benefit the poor. After the Second World War this thinking took hold most strongly in Europe and the UK and, to a lesser extent, in the US. Nationalized medicine, pensions, and welfare handouts became the norm in Europe while in the US the policies of the New Deal and Great Society implemented a number of programmes for the very poor or very sick. These programmes reflected a growing thought in the western world that the state could, through planning, could perhaps change the material relations of society to the benefit of all. State planning became paramount, and the belief spread that a proper government could not just alleviate problems, but potentially solve them.

In 1938 Harold Macmillan wrote The Third Way, in which he pushed for an expansion of social programmes. This would become indicative of the post-war political consensus. He outlined what he called the ‘human charter’ of social programmes of the state: “the items [the charter] contained might be presented either as rights that the individual is entitled to demand from society or as obligations that society owes to the individual.” Here is one of the first manifestations of social rights, representative of the perversion of the rights originally formulated by liberal theorists, as well as the ‘public good’ writers such as Smith outlined. Smith advocated a social good, like the education of children, that might be recognized as important to the population as a whole but perhaps not best achieved individually, so that it could be subsidized by a local government to ensure its provision. Examples like the subsidization of medical care, based on the notion that a country is undeniably better off when the populace is healthy, do not stray far from the original intent of Smith’s writings. However, perceived rights to health care and its provision through a centralized and hierarchical system do. They misunderstand the difference between a social good and a right.

The problem with ‘social rights’

The problem emerges when programmes such as the government provision of health care or education become so entrenched that the populace cannot imagine a different state of affairs. The programme is institutionalized and centralized to such an extent that private alternatives seem inconceivable. Soon, people are claiming a ‘right’ to these services, because it has become something which a western liberal government cannot exist without providing, much like a guarantee to free speech or the freedom to practice a religion. Today, many services have been provided for so long that the people begin to see them not as a good public service that the government has endeavoured to provide, but a service to which they hold an intrinsic claim; something no government can deny them.

Macmillan himself, albeit inadvertently, laid out the problems of social rights. In defending the increase in welfare provisions, he argued that the increase isn’t a new idea, but the logical conclusion of an old one – the obligation of a state to its citizens. But as soon as one decides a state has material obligations to its citizens, the possibilities for extension are endless. To what will we have a right next?

A further problem is that the material involvement in the life of an individual opens up that life to state inspection and interference. If the state pays the rent, is the home still a private residence free from intrusion? If the state provides health care can it order you not to smoke, or drink, or eat fatty food? Issues similar to these are arising today because of the heavy involvement of the state. What happens when a right to non-interference and the obligation of a state to interfere collide?


Social programmes and ‘rights to them’ represent a fundamental change in thinking about the state that had begun in the early 20th century but took its true form in the post-war years: that the state could and should manipulate economic conditions and provide social programmes in order to improve the lot of the general citizenry. Macmillan advocated the idea of social rights in 1938. Today, social rights are so accepted that no one need advocate for them, and challenging them has become politically unacceptable. This is a cause for real concern.

The provision or subsidization of locally accountable public goods intended to benefit society as a whole might fall under the natural role of the state, assuming the community agrees to their value. But claiming a right to a centralized and hierarchical programme involving massive state control does not. Indeed, it threatens the legitimate rights citizens have against their government.

Ultimately, people have rights to life, to liberty, and to property. The provision of public goods is simply a matter for the populace and, latterly, the government of the day.