James Kirchick explains in the latest Commentary magazine why the push to expand the definition of “rights” diminishes the rights we actually enjoy.

Since the concept of “human rights” was established in the wake of the Second World War, progressives of various stripes have conflated natural rights—those basic liberties endowed to all men by virtue of their being human—with “social rights,” which are basically just a plethora of welfare-state benefits. “The concept of human rights,” according to [human-rights activist Aaron] Rhodes, “has been swept into a broad river of campaigns for social justice, global economic development, environmental protection, multiculturalism, tolerance, access to water and sanitation, and more.”

Rhodes isn’t opposed to the government’s providing such social goods, but he wants us to understand them as “goals,” which are fundamentally different from what he terms “freedom rights,” such as freedom of speech, association, and religious practice. Goals are best approached through politics, which is fundamentally about apportioning scarce resources. How much money a society devotes to health care, pensions, education, or any other tangible benefit is ultimately discretionary and the subject of intense debate among people of good will and differing political persuasions.

Human rights, however, are not discretionary, or at least they shouldn’t be. Unlike the funds available for the annual Medicaid budget, there is no scarcity of freedom that we must apportion in a judicious manner. There can never be a valid reason to “cut” one’s natural rights. …

… This distinction between natural and social rights is not a pedantic one. The “inflation” of human rights to include the latter has equipped dictatorships and their apologists with the means of blurring the lines between freedom and unfreedom.