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"Individual rights" is a moral and legal term referring to what one is allowed to do and what can be done to an individual. Police states are generally considered to be oppressive because they offer their citizens few individual rights. Individual rights are considered to be central to a "due process model" of criminal justice.
In Western discourse, individual rights are commonly assumed to be inversely related to social control. By contrast, much of the recent political discourse on individual rights in the People's Republic of China, particularly with respect to due process rights and rule of law, has focused on how protection of individual rights actually makes social control by the government more effective. For example, it has been argued that the people are less likely to violate the law if they believe that the legal system is likely to punish them if they actually violated the law and not punish them if they did not violate the law. By contrast, if the legal system is arbitrary then an individual has no incentive to actually follow the law.
People who argue that individual rights are more important than social control are called "individual rights advocates". This school of thought holds that it is better to let a criminal go free than to execute, imprison, or otherwise punish an innocent person. Advocates tend to argue for increased civil rights. This is traditionally associated with liberalism.
Rights are significant only where corresponding duties and responsibilities exist to enforce them - because people must be motivated to undertake these duties and their associated risk (e.g., resisting arrest, fighting back), these rights can normally only be truly enforced by a government that can collect taxes and pay police and court personnel.
Thus, the definition of individual rights is the core responsibility of any modern government. In the United States, the Constitution outlines individual rights within the Bill of Rights. In Canada, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms serves the same function. One of the key differences between the two documents is that some rights in the Canadian Charter can be overridden by governments if they deliberately do so, and "the resulting balance of individual rights and social rights remains appropriate to a free and democratic society" after the change. In practice, no Canadian government has ever chosen to face the political consequences of actually overriding the Charter. In contrast, in the United States, no such override exists (not even in theory, as is the case in Canada), and judicial activism has been the norm in the interpretation of the Bill of Rights.
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Individual rights can be divided into negative rights (what you can do without coercion from others or the government - e.g., free speech) and positive rights (what you are entitled to from the society, even if provided at the expense of others - e.g., free education). The constitutional system of the United States federal government is primarily designed to protect negative rights. More recent constitutions, including those of Western Europe and some U.S. state constitutions, also include positive rights.
The distinction between negative and positive rights can illustrate the difference between political ideologies. For example, many adherents to libertarian and conservative ideologies believe that the primary role of government is to protect negative rights, and with restrictions on government control the prosperity that is envisioned by positive rights is said to follow. On the other hand, left-leaning ideologies emphasize positive rights at least as much as negative rights, arguing that both are necessary for a free and prosperous society.
Many thinkers dispute the validity of the distinction between negative and positive rights, which they see as being purely a matter of semantics. It can be said that any negative right involves an entitlement to protection against some form of abuse, and is therefore just as "positive" as a positive right. Others would counter that the exercise of negative rights doesn't require any action on the parts of others or the government (e.g., you could conceivably exercize free speech without anyone else acting to help you, whereas free healthcare cannot happen without actions from others).
Such documents as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and Convention on the Rights of the Child reflect the "positive rights" view. Conflicts between Western nations and the People's Republic of China on "human rights issues" have likewise tended to reflect these differences: the Chinese point to near-universal housing and literacy, despite a lack of "negative rights" that would limit the government's power (see human rights in the People's Republic of China).
The idea of individual rights is closely related to the idea of individual capital in some theories of political economy, in which the individual enhances his or her own creative capacities (as opposed to measurable productive capacities, which is usually called the theory of human capital), and must remain free to do so in any way she or he sees fit. The most prominent advocate of this approach, called "development as freedom", is economist Amartya Sen. In this view, individual rights have the economic purpose of enabling each individual to optimize his or her capacity to make a unique contribution others cannot make.
More recent human development theory combines this view with a more rigorous ecological economics and means of measuring well-being. Individual rights such as "freedom from toxins" or "freedom to garden", e.g. cultivating hemp, assume a central role in most such theories, and have indeed been upheld in some countries, e.g. Canada, in which the individual is recognized as having a right to plant native plants in defiance of any social control, as part of the existing "right of free expression" and "freedom of conscience".
In some cases, the term "individual rights" has been co-opted by conservatives in an effort to maintain current power relationships.[How to reference and link to summary or text] These groups see "individual rights" as existing in direct opposition to the rights of oppressed groups such as women, people of colour, poor people, and members of various cultural minority groups.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
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