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Introduction to Political Science

4.1 The Freedom of the Individual

Introduction to Political Science4.1 The Freedom of the Individual

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define community.
  • Identify the responsibilities of the individual as a member of a group.
  • Discuss the need for individual freedom in a group.
  • Analyze how different systems treat the individual.
  • Define civil liberties, civil rights, and human rights.

If all people lived separately, each person would be free to act in any way they want. However, each person lives in many different communities based on their family, ethnicity, religion, and place of residence, and their actions affect other people. A community is a group of people with shared interests and values. National communities today may include people of different ages, races, educational backgrounds, and incomes. In some of these communities, individuals or groups with weapons and economic power force people into a community. In other national communities, people enter into agreements regarding what they can do as individuals and what restrictions the government can set for the common good. How do community members voluntarily decide when the government can restrict individual action for the good of that community?

An individual has community responsibilities, or duties or obligations to the community, including all things that are expected of individuals if they wish to remain members of that community. These responsibilities include cooperation, respect, and participation (or, as Chapter 1: What Is Politics and What Is Political Science? put it, civic engagement). Community responsibilities go beyond thinking and acting as individuals to sharing common beliefs about society’s order and the treatment of others. Each country guarantees certain civil liberties to its people, but how governments interpret these liberties varies widely.

Civil rights and civil liberties are often used interchangeably, but the terms are distinct. Civil liberties are guarantees of freedom from government interference. To determine whether a civil liberty is at stake when a limit is placed on an action, one must ask if the action being considered is a fundamental liberty, who is restricting the action, and whether the restriction is justified based on greater community needs.

For example, the right to vote is not explicitly stated in the US Constitution, but US citizens now view it as fundamental to the US style of democracy. The Constitution does prohibit denial of the right to vote on the basis of race or sex, and it states that certain people are elected to office, but nowhere does it guarantee a right to vote or say who gets to do the voting. However, the right to vote is now seen as so fundamental to the United States’ democratic identity that limits placed on that right are usually considered to be an infringement of the fundamental implied agreement between the people and the government. Indeed, this general point about constitution's including implied rights played a significant role in the thinking of many of the authors and ratifiers of the US Constitution when formulated during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Although the founders tended not to see voting as a civil liberty each adult was entitled to, they did believe that other civil liberties exist that are taken for granted by the Constitution without being explicitly stated within it. Indeed, according to many of the Constitution's founders, it was important for the US Constitution not to be construed as an exhaustive list of civil liberties. This is so because they feared that attempting to list the full range of our rights might give rise to the view that civil liberties come only as grants or gifts from the government. Most of the founders, on the contrary, held that individuals have natural rights that entail civil liberties, which the government must not imperil. These natural rights can be understood by reason and so do not need an elaborate listing in a constitutional document, especially when doing so might cause confusion about the origin of these rights, causing some to see them as government-granted and not inalienable endowments conferred by what the Declaration of Independence calls "nature and nature's God." This example from the thought of the founders of the Constitution illustrates the general point that many constitutions can be seen as containing implied civil liberties not formulated explicitly within their text.

A flow chart shows 6 yes or no questions to ask when determining whether a limit on action represents an inappropriate infringement of a civil liberty. The questions are: Does this involve a fundamental right? Is the government placing limits on the right? Do the limits represent an infringement on that right? If the answer to any of those questions is no, then the response is: While the limit may be problematic, it does not represent an inappropriate infringement of a civil liberty. If the answers to those questions are yes, the next quesiton asks: Is there sufficient justification for the government infringement? If the answer is no, then the limit represents an inappropriate infringement of a civil liberty. If the answer is yes, the next question asks: Is the means of infringement sufficiently related to the purpose of the justification? If the answer to this question is yes, then the response is while the limit may be problematic, it does not represent an inappropriate infringement of a civil liberty. If the answer is no, then the limit represents an inappropriate infringement of a civil liberty.
Figure 4.2 This flowchart illustrates the criteria for determining whether a limit on action represents an inappropriate infringement of a civil liberty. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

On the other hand, civil rights are government guarantees of equal treatment without discrimination based on characteristics an individual shares with a particular population. Civil rights often refers to the right to freedom from discrimination based, for example, on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, age, or national origin. To determine whether civil rights abuses are occurring, one must ask whether similarly situated persons are being treated differently. Chapter 7 focuses specifically on civil rights.

Civil Liberties Civil Rights Human Rights
The rights of people to do or say things without government interference. Civil liberties depend on the structure and action of the government for enforcement. The government declares restrictions on individuals’ liberties for the good of the community. Rights that the government must safeguard to prevent discrimination against individuals based on arbitrary characteristics such as sex, race, religion, or disability. The government must ensure that each person is treated equally. Civil rights depend on the structure and action of the government for enforcement. Human rights are often called inalienable rights, which can be neither given nor taken away. These rights are the basis for freedom, justice, and peace in the world. Human rights include both civil liberties and civil rights. They do not emanate from a governmental structure; however, it takes government action to recognize how they apply to people.
Table 4.1 Civil Liberties, Civil Rights, and Human Rights: A Comparison

Both civil liberties and civil rights fall under the umbrella of human rights. Human rights activists assert that human rights are inalienable—that is, they can be neither given nor taken away, and they are due to all persons. Chapter 3: Political Ideology considered this idea in the context of the philosophies of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. Locke viewed inalienable rights as emanating from human nature before government existed and as objective moral truths to establish common behavior equally applicable to all persons; thus, in his view, only minimal government was necessary. Hobbes also saw them as emanating from human nature, but he viewed that nature as a selfish one that community and government rules must restrain.

Today, intergovernmental or nongovernmental organizations may formally recognize and enshrine statements of human or inalienable rights. However, the protection of human rights around the world is fraught with difficulties. Not all areas of the world share the same political and legal philosophy regarding human rights, and individual governments implement these philosophies within specific nations.

Consider the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted in 1948.5 A number of Islamic countries have issues with the UDHR, arguing that it attempts to impose Western philosophies on other cultures. The members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam in 1990.6The Cairo Declaration rejects the UDHR’s right to change religions, broad freedom of expression, and broad freedoms of women and marriage.7

These differences are symbolic of the second issue with human rights: statements of human rights are nonbinding. As part of their sovereignty, governments are free to ignore or follow human rights declarations at will. For example, in 1948, South Africa practiced apartheid, racial segregation, and discrimination and objected to statements in the UDHR supporting equality and denouncing racial segregation and discrimination.8 Apartheid raised issues of human rights, civil liberties, and civil rights; discriminating against individuals because of their race is a violation of a civil right, and restrictions on freedom of movement and the freedom to choose whom to marry are violations of civil liberties. After a long struggle led by Nelson Mandela, apartheid ended in South Africa in the early 1990s, and South Africa has since come to support the UDHR.9 However, that change came from within South Africa. While some international pressure may have contributed to the shift, it was only when South Africa’s government changed its national civil liberties and its stance on human rights that it agreed to the human rights declarations. Today, the South African Bill of Rights includes portions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.10

The only power in the nonbinding nongovernmental UDHR is the weight of social and economic pressure that those who adhere to the declaration bring to bear. No government can be forced to accept the rights enumerated in the UDHR or to protect them within their territory. The world imposed economic and social sanctions on South Africa to pressure it to change its policy of apartheid, but it was not until the South African government changed its position that it abolished apartheid and accepted the UDHR.11 As this example illustrates, human rights declarations are primarily idealistic, but they can be used to put economic or social pressure on governments to urge them to change policies. People can also use them to guide the creation of civil liberties within a particular country and to instruct governments on how to respect them.

Examining the definitions of civil liberties, civil rights, and human rights reveals how each relates to the relationship between the individual and the community and how governments regulate that relationship. The United States Constitution is one example of a country’s guarantees of civil liberties. The first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, establish these guarantees.12 The United States grants each of these rights to all persons, not just to citizens. Over time, the US Constitution has been interpreted to protect more people and activities from potential government interference. Still, for the good of the community, there are limits on individual actions. It is the job of the government to enforce these limits.

A mural is painted on an outdoor wall. The mural shows a mermaid holding the scales of justice, two people sitting on either side of a pair of lips, and a building surrounded by trees. Surrounding these images are the words “The right to life;” “The right to be treated equally;” “Freedom of speech, artistic creativity, and research;” “Right to freedom from discrimination;” and “The right to conscience, religion, thought, belief, and opinion.”
Figure 4.3 This human rights mural in Durban, South Africa, illustrates numerous rights commonly recognized by governments around the world. Notice how it includes civil rights (equality) and civil liberties (speech, conscience). The mural illustrates how the two go hand in hand throughout society. (credit: “South-Africa-Bill-of-Rights-Durban-mural-06Dec2014-LBB-4697” by Lee Bob Black/Flickr, Public Domain)

Where Can I Engage?

At the Constitution Center, you can compare the rights protected in the US Constitution with rights protected in other constitutions around the world. Which rights guaranteed by the US Constitution are most commonly recognized around the world? Which are exclusive to the United States and just a couple of other countries?

At the World Policy Center, you can review the rights that other countries often guarantee that the US Constitution does not.




First Amendment Prohibits restrictions on the free exercise of religion; prohibits the government from taking any action “respecting an establishment” of religion or infringing on free speech; guarantees the right to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances
Second Amendment Guarantees the right to keep and bear arms in order to maintain a well-regulated militia
Third Amendment Guarantees that no person shall be forced to house soldiers
Fourth Amendment Guarantees security from unreasonable search and seizure
Fifth Amendment Guarantees due process before deprivation of “life, liberty, or property,” the right to indictment by a grand jury for capital crimes, and the right to avoid self-incrimination
Sixth Amendment Guarantees the rights of the accused to counsel and a speedy trial by an impartial jury, to be informed of the charges against them, and to confront witnesses
Seventh Amendment Guarantees the right to a jury trial in civil cases
Eighth Amendment Guarantees freedom from excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishment
Ninth Amendment Declares that people retain rights not enumerated in the Constitution
Tenth Amendment Declares that states retain all rights that have not been delegated to the federal government or the people and have not been prohibited to the states by the Constitution
Table 4.2 Rights and Liberties Guaranteed in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution13
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