The Fundamental Human Right to Travel

Fundamental human rights are based on the nature of the human person, including our relationships with other persons and with God. Derived human rights are related to, and implied by, one or more fundamental human rights. Fundamental rights are limited only by the nature of the right itself, or by other fundamental rights. Derived rights have more extensive limits and allow for a greater degree of regulation and restriction than fundamental rights.

For example, the right to self-defense is a fundamental human right, whereas the right to keep and bear arms is a derived human right. In so far as it is expedient to own and use a firearm, in order to exercise the fundamental human right of self-defense, the derived right applies. Self-defense is a fundamental human right because human nature includes life, the ability to understand the transcendent value of human life, and the ability to love other human persons.

Human persons have the ability to reason abstractly, to consider and understand transcendent truths, to make decisions for their own lives, to decide what is good, better, and best, to decide what is evil or harmful and therefore to be avoided. Human persons have the ability to form relationships of various kinds with other persons. Human persons have the ability to understand that God exists and that He should be loved and worshipped.

Is travel a fundamental human right? Human persons have a need to move from place to place in order to find work, to find a fitting place to live, to associate with other human persons of their choosing, and to avoid any harm that might be found in their present location. Without a right to travel, the human person is a prisoner of their location, a slave to the local conditions. The full expression of human nature requires that the person be free to travel. Therefore, travel is fundamental to the nature of the human person. Travel is a fundamental human right.

However, particular means of travel are not fundamental. A person can travel by a number of different means: biking, various motor vehicles, public transportation, commercial airlines, trains, trolleys, subways, and boats. Each individual means of travel is not a fundamental human right because the person could travel to or from the same location by multiple means. Therefore, a person does not have a fundamental human right to have a driver’s license or to own a car.

Even so, the various types of transportation and the means needed to access them are derived human rights. In so far as it is expedient for travel — to work, to stores, to meet with family and friends, etc. — a human person has a derived right to have a driver’s license and own a car. The government can restrict and regulate car ownership and use, and driver’s licenses. But it is not (as many persons claim) a privilege, but a type of right. For without that right, the necessities and freedoms of human life are much less accessible.

Then, too, in so far as it is expedient to travel by plane when traveling a great distance, travel by plane is a derived human right. This means of travel allows for greater regulation and restriction than any fundamental human right. But it is a right nonetheless. Therefore, the government does grave harm to human rights when it imposes excessive regulations and restrictions on travel by plane, such as by making a long list of persons who are not permitted to fly, without any due process of law used in determining who is on the no-fly list, why they are on the list, and how they might be removed from the list. The goal of society to be safe from grave crimes and terrorism does not justify the deprivation of any fundamental human rights, nor excessive restrictions on derived rights. Some restrictions on derived human rights are permissible, but arbitrary or excessive restrictions and deprivation without due process are not.

Walking is a means of travel. But the right to travel by walking is fundamental, not derived. The reason is that the human body naturally travels mainly by means of walking. We can run, crawl, hop, skip, and jump, but the human body is designed for walking as the main means of travel. So travel by walking is a fundamental human right.

In some circumstances, a derived right is necessary in order to access a fundamental right. In such cases, the derived right has greater importance than other derived rights, and should be subject to fewer restrictions. Derived rights admit of degrees. Some derived rights are more essential than others to access a fundamental human right, and that makes the derived right more important and less subject to regulation and restriction.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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