What it means to have a right
There's a thing I say a lot in commercial dealings: "A right is only as good as it is enforced." It's at once both a bleak and a hopeful reality.
In New Zealand we are phenomenally lucky. We have almost all the rights that could reasonably exist, including some, like the right to marry a person of any sex, that are still denied to the vast majority of the world (including the majority of the developed world). What a time and place to be alive, eh?
Still, it is one thing to have a right, and another to have everything and everyone comply with your rights. My focus here isn't so much on human rights, but on commercial rights. Your intellectual property, your consumer rights, your statutory protections, your simple commercial agreements. Rights that tend to have more to do with money than the fact and manner of your individual existence.
In a pure sense, the only way to ensure that any right is complied with is to sue over it. If someone refuses to act in accordance with a right, a court order may be the only real way to get them to change (and in extreme cases, even the coercion of the state isn't enough).
In practice though, litigation is and should be a last resort, especially in commercial disputes. It's crazy expensive, and there are too many contingencies to make the outcome certain. Plus, it is an enormous horrible distraction from much better stuff you could be doing (running your business or living your life). If you had to sue to enforce all of your rights, well, you wouldn't. Litigation is an expensive and stressful pastime.
Of course, if you're rarely going to sue, if ever, what value does a right really have? In law, not much. But in life and business? It has all the value in the world. Contractual and statutory rights are a more formalised version of "do no harm but take no shit". They are the rules of engagement. What people do with them tells us who to play with and who to politely decline.
That's why the dictum that "rights are only as good as they are enforced" is hopeful as well as bleak. It's precisely because we can't sue over everything that we must rely on something other than our strict legal rights to get by in life and business. We must be good to each other, we must give leeway, we must respect others and stick to what we've agreed we'll do. If we don't, we'll suffer the consequences. Customers will turn away, relationships will break down.
Life is no utopia. All the time there are rights breaches going on that will go unremedied, by court order or otherwise. None of the above is any consolation to someone facing a $200,000 bill for fees to enforce their rights in the High Court. There is no inherent fairness except what we bring ourselves, and even the best people can suffer terrible injustices.
But it does us well to remember that just because we have a right, doesn't mean it'll be respected, and just because someone won't (or can't) sue to enforce a right, doesn't mean we should roll all over them.
In commercial dealings at least, where we theoretically have a choice of relationships, we would do better to reward with our custom those who respect our rights, and politely disengage from the rest. (If goodness and altruism aren't motivation enough, we should remember that everyone else will be doing the same with us!)