Liberalism, Fascism, and Their Different Conceptions of Rights
Human rights, civil rights, minority rights, animal rights, etc. – rights seem to affect every part of human life, and it appears that everyone is talking about them. Since the writings of ancient Greek philosopher Plato, rights have been an essential topic of philosophical and political as well as public debate. But what exactly are “rights”? One German philosophical encyclopedia, edited by famous scholar Otfried Hoeffe, defines rights as a normative set of rules which organize and regulate social coexistence by defining both what is allowed of people and what is owed to people (Hoeffe 211). In other words: rights allow people to perform certain actions, but also restrict them from performing others, therefore imposing order and structure within human society, as well as reducing complexity. Still, the question remains how such an order created by rights might look like, since there is no universal consensus about the origin, nature, and distribution of rights. Where do these rights derive from? Is every person endowed with equal rights? What is there to do if the rights of one social entity interfere with those of another social entity? It is because of the importance of rights to social life that virtually every political ideology has been dealing with those and other questions, and every single one of them has come up with different answers. Thus, it turns out to be vital to one’s general understanding of rights to assess what different ideologies have to say about this topic. Additionally, one’s ability to judge different ideologies and therefore take (or consolidate) a political stance might be improved if he is aware of how these ideologies conceive of rights. Hence, in this essay I will contrast the different views of liberalism and fascism on political as well as on economic rights. Moreover, I will critically assess the implications of these two ideologies based on their protection of individual rights and come up with a conclusion why I favor the one mode of thinking about rights over the other.
Let us start with liberalism first. Liberalism is defined as a political worldview which is based on individual liberty and the rejection of any form of coercion, whether this coercion is social, economic, or political. Its four major principles are (1) the right to self-determination based on reason, (2)the limitation of political power via constitutions and separation of powers, (3) freedom from governmental coercion via individual rights and (4) a self-regulating economy based on private property (Schubert, and Klein). This basic definition already makes clear that liberalism is much about rights, more precisely the rights of the individual. 17th century English philosopher John Locke, who is often referred to as the founding father of liberalism, already pointed out this very fact in his classic work, the Treatise of Civil Government: “The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions” (Love 18). What Locke is essentially telling us here is that to liberals, all people, no matter when and where, are endowed with several individual rights, given to them by nature (one is born with rights), and therefore no state, institution or other individual is allowed to take away these rights. Locke is rather vague about which rights individuals are exactly endowed with; he briefly mentioned that individuals have the right to life, health, liberty and property. Thus, later liberals like John Stuart Mill and many others have picked up on Locke´s principle of individual freedom and tried to specify which rights individuals are exactly endowed with. That is the reason why today a vast number of political rights (or, as they are often synonymously called, civil rights) exist, including the freedoms of thought and conscience, speech and expression, religion, association, and movement, which can all be found in the constitutions of today´s Western liberal democracies and enable citizens to be free from governmental coercion as well as to freely participate in the political process.
But liberal ideology is not solely (some might say: not even mainly) concerned with political rights. As the definition of liberalism mentioned above suggests, economics and economic rights are also important matters for liberals. Generally speaking, liberalism embraces a self-regulating (= capitalistic) economic system. Individuals are free in their economic decisions, which means they can (almost) buy and sell whatever they want and do trade with whomever they like (= free trade). They are also free to form corporations and other economic organizations which – like individuals – try to maximize their profit by following the rules of demand and supply. Therefore, economic institutions are in competition with each other, unfolding a competitive vigor which is seen as the key factor for human progress. As liberals conceive of humans as imperfect beings, they assume that people are competitive in their nature and care more about themselves as about their community. Thus, in order to achieve progress, free trade only works and only makes sense if economic arrangements are based on the principle of private property; public property inevitably degenerates over time. Early liberals like Locke already stressed the importance of this principle: “God gave the world to men in common, but since He gave it them for their benefit and the greatest conveniencies of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed He meant it should always remain common and uncultivated” (Love 23). Many later liberals have continued to emphasize the essential character of economic freedom not only for human progress, but also as a basic component of freedom in a broader sense and therefore integral part of human fulfillment. One of them is Milton Friedman, probably the most famous contemporary economic liberal. In his influential book Capitalism and Freedom, it says: “Economic arrangements play a dual role in the promotion of a free society. On the one hand, freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself. In the second place, economic freedom is also an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom. […] As liberals, we take freedom of the individual […] as our ultimate goal in judging social arrangements” (Love 87, 90).
It is very important to mention here that all these political and economic rights which were outlined above and on which liberalism is based on have to be understood as so called “negative liberty” (freedom from) or “negative rights”. They can be defined as those rights “that prohibit certain government actions [; …] government inaction is what protects that right[s] from infringement. In contrast, positive rights are attained only by positive government action” (Bova 183). For example, the rights to employment and proper education are positive rights, as the state has to play an active role in order to ensure them. While negative rights are an integral component of liberal ideology, positive rights (freedom for) only play a minor role in the writings of most liberal authors.
But what are the implications of this liberal conception of rights? There are at least three major ones. First of all, as liberalism insists on the importance of individual rights, it creates a limited state. To liberals, the state does not have many obligations; one could say the state’s major duty is to leave its citizens alone. It is not allowed to infringe people’s negative liberty, and it is not required to provide positive liberty. Instead of the government, liberals want the market to take care of positive rights issues, as it can assume public services such as police, roads, and schools. Yet, the liberal state has some important functions, of which the most important one is to protect private property. As Friedman puts it: “The role of government […] is to do something that the market cannot do for itself, namely, to determine, arbitrate, and enforce the rules of the game […] – but that is all it needs to do” (Love 14, 101). To liberals, limited government is an integral component of individual freedom, as they conceive of the state as a permanent threat to individual rights and latent source of coercion. Second, as liberalism emphasizes individual rights and leaves out collective rights, it creates an individualistic society. As there is no entity (like a strong state) above the individual which could define the common good, it is up to the individuals what to do with their freedom. Liberalism leaves moral questions like “How should I live my life?” for the individual to wrestle with, therefore creating a society with multiple lifestyles which individuals can choose from. Third, though all people are endowed with equal rights, some of them make – for whatever reason – better use of their rights (accumulate more wealth) than others. Therefore, liberalism creates an economic and social inequality as well as a hierarchy within society which is based on merit. Liberals believe in the equality of rights, in the equality of opportunity, but the reject an equality of wealth and possession (= social egalitarianism).
The result of this was that by the latter part of the 19th century, a vast majority of the working people were living in very poor circumstances. That is why some liberals began to have second thoughts and to call upon the state to protect workers with factory legislation, health and education acts, and so on (Love 116). Thus, they created a form of liberalism which is called “contemporary left-wing liberalism” or “welfare-state liberalism”. In contrast to “classical liberalism” (often referred to as “free-market liberalism”), welfare-state liberalism wants the state to play a more active role and to interfere in certain areas of economic and social life. Whereas to welfare-state liberals the government is allowed to interfere in the rights of individuals in order to serve a common purpose, it is not allowed to do so in free-market liberal theory. As Franklin D. Roosevelt, a prominent contemporary left-wing liberal and former President of the United States, puts it: “[…] as new conditions arise beyond the power of men and women to meet as individuals, it becomes the duty of the Government itself to find new remedies with which to meet them. […] the Government has the definite duty to use all its power and resources to meet new social problems with new social controls – to insure to the average person the right to his own economic and political life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Love 82). Today, classical liberalism and welfare-state liberalism are the two major competing paradigms within liberal ideology. Therefore, there is no distinct liberal conception of rights; it is more appropriate to speak of “liberalisms” and their different conceptions of rights.
 When Locke says “all people”, he actually means white males. But in the course of time, the liberal principle of equal rights outlined by Locke was gradually extended to virtually everybody. As political scientist Nancy S. Love puts it: “Locke´s sovereign people […] are educated, white, men with substantial property. […] Yet, the principle of individual freedom articulated by Locke required later liberals eventually to extend rights to anyone who demanded them” (Love 12).