In The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism, the rather infamousAyn Rand unapologetically declared that there was no such no thing as a ‘right to a job’, or a ‘right to a home’ or even a ‘rights to a fair wage’. There were only, ‘the Rights of Man – rights possessed by every individual man and by all men as individuals … Property rights and the right of free trade are man’s only “economic rights” (they are, in fact, political rights) – and there can be no such thing as “an economic bill of rights”.
Published in 1957, this idiosyncratic philosophy of ‘selfishness’ did not receive the warmest of welcomes – in fact, Rand was intellectually snubbed, and mainstream academia rarely entertained her work. However, the ideas she espoused were neither unusual nor uncharacteristic of her time – the only difference was that while she was unabashed in her championing of laissez-faire capitalism, others were simply more diplomatic in their approach.

What Rand discusses in the aforecited excerpt, is a longstanding dispute in the subject of ‘rights’ – with individualism on one hand, collectivism on the other and their apparent irreconcilability in the middle. This bifurcation of human rights originated in the midst of the Cold War, just as the international polity began reconstructing itself in the aftermath of World War II. As the draftsmen of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights set to create the foundations for a new global order, two camps emerged, each harbouring a deep-seated suspicion of the ideological agenda of the opposition.

The ‘individualist camp’,sponsored the primacy of civil and political rights – the rights to property, free trade andexpression– all the fundamentals of a free, unregulated market.The ‘collectivist camp’, argued for the dominance of social and economic rights – the rights to education, shelter, healthcare, guaranteed employment and a fair wage – all the components of a robust welfare state. These rights are inherently distinct, both in form and in substance. The individualists insisted on imposing negative obligations on the state: a duty to not do something. On the other hand, the collectivists sought to impose positive obligations on the state: a duty to actively do something.
Allow me to illustrate the difference through a simple comparison: take the right to liberty (a politico-civil right), in contrast with the right to shelter (a socio-economic right). The right to liberty imposes a negative duty on the state to not interfere with an individual’s freedom of movement, whereas the right to shelter imposes a positive duty on the state to provide an adequate form of housing or accommodation for the populace at large.
Quite remarkably, the final draft of the Declaration managed not only to accommodate both notions of human rights, but also to declare them ‘inseparable and indivisible’, a feat that may be credited to the expert diplomacy of Eleanor Roosevelt and René Cassin. Yet, the damage had already been done, and that fateful initial split had set into motion an ideological turf war between two diametrically different sets of rights.

In the coming years, decolonisation picked up pace, leading to the emergence of new, often identity-starved states, and as they vied for political legitimacy, the question of the ‘rights of the people’ became a fundamental issue. After all, each right brings with it a corresponding duty, and to acknowledge a right is to concurrently acknowledge that duty. Ideology, within this context, became a multi-faced god, with each state adopting its own method of worship.

In Pakistan, the notion of collective rights neglected to gain any real traction until the arrival of Bhutto and his particular brand of nationalism-cum-socialism. Till then, our policies had largely centred on fostering a deregulated market, much akin to the ‘free world’ thatAyub Khan was so enamoured by. But with Bhutto, the fulcrum of national politics tilted to the left, and with this incline, collectivism began to finally capture the imagination of the public. Bhutto’s rousing populist slogan ‘roti, kapraaurmakaan’ was infectious, and like an infection, it spread through our polity, dismantling age-old notions of unquestioned reverence for the elite, unshackling a nation from its subservient slumber.

It was amidst this electrifying temperament that, in 1973, Pakistan unveiled its re-written constitution. Framed under a call for a socialist welfare state, one may be forgiven for hoping, if not presuming that those charged with drafting this document might have designed some legal machination for its realisation. On the contrary, the Chapter on Fundamental Rights dealt mostly with civil and political liberties, with little mention of social and economic rights. Instead, the latter were relegated to the Chapter on Principles of Policy. The classification is singularly crucial – fundamental rights are enforceable through our superior courts, whereas principles of policy are not. In fact, Article 30(2) makes it abundantly clear that ‘the validity of an action or of a law shall not be called in question on the ground that it is not in accordance with the Principles of Policy’.

In that regard, Bhutto’s mantra may have in fact preceded him to the gallows, but given his premature demise, that is speculative at best. Following his death however, his national plans were all but gradually reversed. The Zia-era ushered in a decade-long period of both social and fiscal conservatism. The nationalisation of resources was undone, the markets were liberated and Bhutto, along with his socialist ideals, was vilified. Whatever seeds of a collective consciousness may have been sown bore little fruit in the coming decades.
Today, italmost seems as if the idea of ‘collective rights’ has disappeared entirely from mainstream politics. Our national healthcare system is close to non-existent; our state-sponsored education is pitifully behind its time; our public spaces are being devoured by the rampant growth of private properties; our natural environment is being crippled; the cycle of landlessness and poverty amongst our working class continues unchecked – and all the while, our silence to these common problems is deafening. Perhaps we have become complacent. Perhaps we have become apathetic. But while an apathetic individual is a misfortune, an apathetic nation is a tragedy. After all, there may just be a virtue in selfishness – but in our case, a virtue can often be fatal.

The writer is a Barrister