Changing Content Of Rights

We have enumerated above a fairly long list of civil and political rights which are generally recognised by civilised States. But it does not mean that they are always so recognised by all States uniformly. Really they vary from State to State and from age to age. It is, indeed, impossible to compile a permanent and unchanging catalogue of particular rights of the citizens for all States and for all times. Reasons are several. First of all, every particular right has a changing content which varies from age to age and place to place. Take, for instance, the right to property.

The Individualists of the 19th century interpreted it in absolute terms, but in the present century it is limited in several ways. Right to private property in the means of production was once completely denied in the communist States. Laski has aptly remarked that a “right, as the State recognises, is not a static thing, but is made and remade in the crucible of experience” Secondly, rights as a whole are historically determined. They are not static but dynamic. They vary with the conditions and needs of the people. They are demanded by the character of a given society, its political culture and the level of its civilisation.

Hence what is considered as a fundamental or natural right at one time may not be so regarded at another time. Thirdly, the individual rights vary because they must also be in harmony with the interests of the groups and associations, to which the individual belongs, and of the community, the State and of the whole mankind. Our theory of rights must be consistent with the widening circle of interests and needs of the modern life. No individual can enjoy his rights in a vacuum or in isolation from other human beings. Lastly, rights must be related to social ideals. But ideals are constantly changing.

Rights which are actually recognised in the past may become inadequate, obsolete or outworn, because the ideals of life and happiness have changed since then. Every age has its own ideals; hence it must have its own set of rights. “Any given State,” observes Laski, “is set between rights that have been recognised and rights which demand recognition.” Rights are, therefore, constantly changing because of the changes in human needs, demands and ideals. Rights are relative and not absolute. But this creates a danger. If rights are constantly changing, is it not likely that a State may at any time deny them to its citizens altogether? Are there basic or fundamental rights? If so, what are they? These questions we shall consider next.