Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Everyone has the right to be equally miserable

Jamie Whyte writes a beautifully clear and concise piece in The Times, called How human rights always lead to human wrongs

….Initially, our self-evident human rights were simply protections against the abuse of power. Today, entitlements to all manner of goods are making themselves evident to human rights oracles. Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, claims that we have human rights “to food, to work, to healthcare and housing”.

This inflation has changed the politics of human rights. Whereas human rights once supported limited government, they are now invoked in favour of the welfare state and the maximal government it requires. Which is why the human rights movement, although well intentioned, has become a malign force.

In an article to mark Human Rights Day this month, Ms Arbour claimed that poverty is caused by human rights violations. It is true, of course, that if people had food, healthcare and housing, they would not live in poverty. But it is absurd to say that lacking these things causes poverty. Lacking these things
is poverty. Why do millions of people lack decent food, healthcare and housing? That is the question.

The human rights lobby sees poverty as an essentially legal problem. All humans are entitled to food, healthcare, housing and so on. But countries where poverty is common have failed to enshrine these entitlements in law. If they embraced human rights, poverty would be legislated out of existence.

If you are tempted to agree, perhaps you will also like this idea. The government should enrich us by passing a law that entitles all Brits to an annual income of at least one million pounds. The difficulty, of course, is that Britain’s GDP is considerably less than one million pounds per person. It is impossible to provide everyone with this income.
The same goes for the more modest entitlements that human rights enthusiasts claim to be universal. Providing every citizen with decent food, healthcare and housing exceeds the productive capacity of many poor countries. Mauritania’s annual GDP, for example, is only $400 per person. It would be nice if Mauritanians were richer, but declaring that they should be will not help. Entitlements to wealth do not create wealth. On the contrary, they hinder wealth creation.


The causes of poverty are debated by economists. Yet most agree that property rights are essential for wealth creation. Without them, wealth cannot be accrued. And if people cannot accrue wealth, they have little incentive to create it. Why invest capital and effort in a business if you cannot feel secure in your ownership of it, and of the profits that flow from it? Communism and anarchy create poverty in the same way: by undermining property rights.

Property rights are not universal entitlements. If I own some land then you do not own it. You lack entitlements that I enjoy, such as the profits made by farming that land. Such inequalities are inherent to property rights. Which may explain why human rights activists do not care for them. In an 800-word article on fighting poverty, Ms Arbour did not once mention property rights. Instead, she lamented “unequal access to resources” — something entailed by private ownership of them.

Tens of millions of Chinese have worked their way out of poverty in recent years. It was not achieved by extending human rights law in China. Nor is it an “economic miracle”. It is a predictable consequence of establishing property rights.

It is a strange aspect of the Leftist outlook – which has a monopoly on many international institutions and public bodies, but not on any successful Government in history – to ignore the lessons of reality.

Rather than examining why the West has succeeded in creating unprecedented wealth and standards of living, while Communism has succeeded only in creating unprecedented misery and atrocity, it is considered more important to talk about ideology, as if ideology mattered.

There comes a point, however, where well-meaning but misguided becomes stubborn, arrogant and eventually, evil.


Peter Burnet said...

"Human rights" is just an amorphous abstract cerebral blob that defies, and is intended to defy, any workable definition. It is an expression of some kind of secular universalist yearning for the end of history and comes very close to marxism in the sense that it takes the basic human charitable impulse and builds a whole worldview of government/public policy on it--modern theocratic thinking. If you compare the notion to classic liberal civil rights like freedom of speech, religion, the vote, etc. you see that the latter is, or was, based upon some reciprocal notion of a stake in society or duty to it, which is why historically there have been endless very real, high-stakes debates on how far they can be extended and what the limits of them are or should be---they are human, individual and concrete. Human rights is like trying to craft a social policy out of the Sermon on the Mount. You can debate the laws of libel, obscenity or even blasphemy and be taken relatively seriously, but whoever hears of anyone marching in favour of including a separate entrance or second bathroom in the universal right to housing? And note that the universal right to housing never seems to convert into Peter Burnet's right to sue for a house.

It astounds me, though, how the notion has gripped the psyches of so many. The beautiful people organize concerts and charity balls for human rights, every politician claims to lie awake worrying them and the highlight of any modern obituary is when they counterbalance the accounts of the deceased's drug or fraud conviction, four marriages and numerous estranged children with his lifelong "passionate" commitment to human rights.

Brit said...

Human rights don't exist in the world - rather, there are rules and responsibilities we agree to get along as best we can.

Whyte makes three valuable insights:

First is the distinction between 'rights from', which curb the power of the state: freedom of speech, life, liberty etc. But the new fad is for "rights to" (housing, certain amounts of wealth, food etc), all of which depend on strengthening the state.

Second, he points out that the new faddists fail to understand the practical implications of demanding a universality of "rights to". They think that merely legislating against poverty will cure poverty. It doesn't really occur to them that they are relying on the state to enforce this legislation, which is always counterproductive. So, counter-intuitively for many, by insisting on universal "rights to" decent food and housing, you are inevitably decreasing the practical chances of attaining them.

This is because of Whyte's third insight, which is that the only right that will practically generate wealth, food and housing, is the right to property. And since this is not universal, it is the one right that the new faddists never want to protect.

Duck said...

Great post and great comments.

Peter, you make a telling comment when you call the rights crowd theocrats. Human Rights is like a theology, with its appeal to an abstract Platonic realm to which human society is an imperfect manifestation. I tried making the same point in my post about animal rights.

Another aspect of this movement is the "fatal conceit" that men can manage and control the complex web of human interactions on a society-wide scale. Leftists hate the "Invisible Hand", it is a statement of their own helplessness to bend society to their will. Unfortunately we are starting to see the same kind of idealistic hubris developing on the right, with George Bush and the compassionate conservatism crowd. This is not a secular only phenomenon - as you mentioned, its roots go back to the Sermon on the Mount. Bush has energized a whole cadre of evangelical idealists like David Kuo to look to government as the solution to social problems.

That's a good moniker for the human rights cause: it's a faith-based initiative.

Hey Skipper said...

Peter, Brit:

Good comments, and they both hit on what I refer to as the "symmetry argument."

Freedom of Speech is a classic symmetry argument (which has thus far eluded incendiary Muslims).

"Rights to" fall prey to asymmetry : changing the reference frame's orientation changes everything.

The former can be succinctly incorporated in a governing document running under 35 pages, and are largely self policing.

The latter require hefty tomes (e.g., the hilarious, and still-born, EU Constitution) and a massive state apparatus.

Why does anyone think the latter could possibly work better?

Which is where Duck comes in. Like everything else that is faith based, its adherents have nearly omnipotent anti-bodies to facts on the ground.