The Spanish historian and Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566) is one of my favorite libertarian figures. He devoted most of his life to fighting the violent colonization of South America and the savage slavery it involved. Unique among European nations, and largely because of Las Casas, Spain debated the morality of conquest and slavery at the highest levels. In response to a petition co-authored by Las Casas, Pope Paul III issued the Sublimis Dei in June 1537. The papal bull prohibited enslaving Indians in the New World on the grounds that they were rational beings who should be peacefully converted and treated as equal to Spaniards. Unfortunately, moral theory an ocean away did not always trump practical policy in the colonies.

Nevertheless, Las Casas’ accomplishments were remarkable. He was one of the earliest voices for universal human rights based on a shared humanity. Or, as he phrased it, “all mankind is one.” Part of my fondness for Las Casas comes from an insight that occurred to me while reading a collection of his work: namely, all progress toward human freedom can be reduced to the universalization of individual rights. Every individual, by virtue of being human, possesses an identical and natural right to control his own person and property. The key word is “natural.” As part of human nature, rights are both universal and inalienable; they are not dependent upon government, rulers, laws or customs.

Freedom itself rests on universalization. The spread of ‘rights’ from a king to the nobility, from nobles to commoners, from landowners to the landless, from men to women, from whites to blacks...each time a greater number of people became equal in freedom, the entire world breathed in more liberty. Indeed, during the Enlightenment, the arguments advanced for natural rights were explicitly populist and they denied the divine right of kings. They also provided a practical way for people to measure when rulers exceeded their authority and by how much.

In his book Rights of Man (1791), Thomas Paine continued in the Enlightenment tradition by explaining the only justification for government. “It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect—that of taking rights away. Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants.... The fact therefore must be that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a contract with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.”

The universality of rights is also a powerful barrier to the collectivism epitomized by communism, socialism and other left ideologies. There is a common Marxist retort to the universality of rights. It comes when anyone points out the sheer political magnificence of a poor man possessing the same right to free speech as a prince. “Oh yeah,” scorn drips from the words, “he has the same right to starve to death under a bridge.” The clear implication is that equal rights do not matter; only equal circumstances do—only egalitarianism. The opposite is true. Equal rights give people the ability to claim and control their circumstances, to grab for the opportunities and benefits of life. Poor people need individual rights more than anyone else. With rights, they become political sovereigns who bow their heads to no one.

Over the last several decades, collectivists have made a concerted and successful effort to reverse the universality of individual rights. The trend goes by various names but it is often called “identity politics.” Identity politics divides society into distinct political classes that are said to have antagonistic interests: blacks against whites, women against men, gays against heterosexuals. It does not focus on the individual rights of group members but on the political interests that all members are said to share. Nancy Rosenblum observed in her book Membership and Morals (2000) that identity politics compels association by presuming each individual in a group has shared interests, whether they perceive them as such or not. The interests are almost always pro-statist and usually left-wing. Thus, conservative blacks and women are condemned as group traitors.

What are some of the alleged shared interests? With blacks, entitlements are justified by a slavery that existed a century and a half ago; a massive redistribution of wealth flows from those who never owned a slave to those who were never in bondage. With women, the alleged shared interest is to throw off patriarchy (white male culture, the rape culture); a double standard is embedded into laws, such as affirmative action, to privilege women in the name of ‘equality.’ With gays, it is forced ‘acceptance’ even if this means people have to provide services against their will, such as selling gay wedding cakes; a gay’s so-called “human right” to acceptance trumps the natural right of others to freedom of association.

The difference between human or social rights and natural ones boils down to universality. This one concept defines and limits the rights an individual can justly claim from another. For example, freedom of speech is universal because my right to an opinion doesn’t interfere with any one else’s identical freedom. My right to worship the God of my choice or to refrain from doing so doesn’t deny exactly the same right to others.

By contrast, so-called ‘social rights’ cannot be universal because they have to be provided by someone. Access to health care is a commonly cited social right. But if patients have a legal right to treatment, then medical personnel have a legal duty to provide it whether on not they wish to do so. Taxpayers would have a legal duty to fund the treatment. Individuals cannot properly claim the services and wealth of others who don’t wish to provide them. Such a claim amounts to slavery and theft. If it is enforced, then there can be no harmony of interests among men, no civil society.

Identity politics makes a mockery of freedom and of true equality because it destroys the main prerequisite for those concepts: universal rights. Instead, it creates deep and irresolvable social conflict. Identity politics creates a war of all against all, but especially of all against the individual.