The University of Vermont's Independent Voice Since 1883

The Vermont Cynic

The University of Vermont's Independent Voice Since 1883

The Vermont Cynic

The University of Vermont's Independent Voice Since 1883

The Vermont Cynic

Rights are for people

Andrew Slowman

The protection of individual rights is a hallmark of liberal democracy. 

Fundamentally, rights are about protecting individuals from tyranny. We have a right to free speech to allow for criticism of the government, the right to protection from cruel and unusual punishment as well as others granted in the Constitution.

All of the rights in our constitution are to protect individuals from powerful groups, be it the state or white segregationists. 

Once we apply the concept of rights to bigger groups of people, like companies or countries, we often reach negative outcomes.

In the Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. FEC, 2010, the Court determined that a ban on corporate advertisements for political candidates was unconstitutional, according to the Brennan Center.

This decision led to the birth of super PACs, which can receive unlimited donations and spend them on election advertisements, according to the Brennan Center. 

Allowing the unlimited flow of corporate money into campaigns infringes on the ability of all but the wealthiest Americans to make their voices heard. 

Giving corporations rights shelters them from public criticism by removing enforcement mechanisms. 

With this in mind, it’s necessary to understand that corporations do not need rights in the same way individuals do. A corporation cannot be jailed or subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, so the only real consideration for the legality of corporate action should be on the impact to individuals. 

Corporate rights serve as a thought-terminating cliché, a concept used to derail public narratives on issues. Instead of discussing the solutions to problems, they can simply say “we have a right” instead of asking what is in the public’s best interest. 

The same concept is often applied to countries when we use a framework of national rights to think about geopolitics. 

After 9/11, the U.S. began the war on terror, invading Afghanistan in 2003. The invasion is often justified, claiming the U.S. has a right to self-defense, as stated in an Aug. 2022 Department of Defense press report

It is much more coherent to view national actions not through the lens of rights but rather through the lens of outcome. 

The Department of Defense determined that the war in Afghanistan would not be won through military might, so eventually Biden pulled the U.S. military out in 2021. The Taliban controls Afghanistan again, bringing all the repression that follows from it, according to an Oct. 7, 2021 New York Times article

From this point of view, the war on terror was a disaster: our national rights were used to allow the U.S. to go into and stay in Afghanistan for 20 years, accomplishing nothing. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is being justified in a similar way, with Russia claiming self-defense in response to a potential Ukrainian admission to NATO, according to a Feb. 27 New York Times article

Ascribing rights to countries prevents a thorough understanding of the issue. The question should not be if Russia has a right to invade. The question should be about the effect of the invasion on Ukrainian and Russian people. 

Giving countries rights gives them easy cover for harmful actions. As long as Russia can plausibly claim to be provoked, then they have a “right” to invade. 

Ukraine’s defense should also not be viewed through national rights. Ukraine’s actions are not justified because they are a country with a right to self defense. Its actions are justified because its people desire autonomy and freedom.

Rights are for people, not countries or corporations. 

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