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The Fundamental Rights of the European Union: Individual Rights or Welfare-State Privileges? Part 2

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IN NOVEMBER 1934, during the dark years of growing tyranny throughout Europe, British historian Ramsey Muir penned a short article that appeared in the pages of the journal The Nineteenth Century and After. His theme was “civilization and liberty.” He asked how it was that of all the civilizations around the world, only the one centered in Europe had succeeded in flourishing in terms of sustained freedom and prosperity.

Europe, he pointed out, had not always had either freedom or prosperity. These were relatively new phenomena, evolved during the preceding four or five hundred years. Their roots, however, went back far into European history. They had their origins in the ancient Greek world, with its emphasis on reason and the importance of pursuing a knowable truth, and in the Christian heritage of an equality of all men before a Supreme Maker that would eventually come to challenge the idea of slavery and political-caste systems. Muir said,

In proportion as their significance was realized, the Greek principle of the sovereignty of reason, and the Christian principle of the equal value of all human personalities, when brought into conjunction, challenged men to pursue a new conception of human society, in which it would be based upon liberty rather than authority, upon reason rather than custom, upon argument rather then force…. The [Classical] Liberal idea was born.

Four freedoms of man

It was during the last four or five hundred years, Muir explained, that these principles began to triumph. And they did so, he suggested, in the form of achieving four freedoms for man. The first was the freedom of the person, by which he meant the abolition of slavery and the end to serfdom. But Muir stated that such individual freedom was secured only under the rule of law, a law that protected the individual from arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, and violence, including torture.

The second was the freedom of the mind. Man was liberated to think, believe, and say what he wanted; he was given the liberty to publish and to persuade his fellow men through open exchange of ideas and discourse.

Naturally flowing from this freedom of thought, Muir argued, was the accompanying freedom of association, so men of like minds could peacefully and voluntarily pursue the purposes and goals they might share.

He was proud of England because it “became a place of refuge for those who were forbidden to think and speak freely in their own countries.” And by the end of the 19th century, practically throughout all of Europe “these freedoms seemed to have become, by universal assent, one of the essential marks of a civilized State.”

The third was freedom of enterprise. In the 19th century, the controls, regulations, and commands of government in the domestic economic affairs of many European countries radically receded in comparison to the degree of state domination under mercantilism in the 18th century.

“Beyond a doubt,” he said, “the amazing variety and richness of life in the modern world has been primarily due to the inexhaustible fertility and inventiveness of free enterprise, using the gifts of science.”

Indicative of the extent to which collectivist rationales had, unfortunately, penetrated the thinking of even some of the most devoted friends of liberty, Muir was unwilling to defend laissez faire. But he emphasized that “the most dangerous form of monopoly arises when the State, which ought to be the watchdog and guardian of freedom, identifies itself with the creation and maintenance of monopoly power. Free enterprise is still, and must always be, the mainspring of progress.”

And the fourth freedom was the free movement of men, ideas, goods, and capital around the globe. Free trade in all of these forms, he said, “has turned the intellectual and material wealth of the whole world into the common inheritance of all its peoples.” This free trade in ideas, goods, and men was “one of the greatest achievements of Western civilization.”

Finally, Muir emphatically insisted that these freedoms were interdependent and mutually reinforcing:

It is impossible that free men with free minds should not demand freedom of enterprise, and freedom of intercourse with their fellows. All these freedoms can only be enjoyed in security under a system of free government. The repression of free enterprise and of free intercourse must in the long run involve the destruction of political liberty; and those who, distrusting democracy, set themselves to replace it by an autocratic system, find themselves compelled to invade freedom of the person and freedom of speech.

The new danger to freedom

Muir’s restatement of the origin and his defense of the principles of European freedom was, of course, written at a time when liberty in all its forms seemed threatened by the rise of Italian fascism, German Nazism, and Soviet communism across the continent. Yet the danger to liberty can come under many names and justifications.

Right now, when Europe seems to be free from the more extreme forms of political and economic collectivism and to be devoted to democratic government and economic liberalization, in fact liberty is under serious assault once again. And perversely this danger to freedom comes under the cover of a Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

While the charter enumerates many of the fundamental civil, political, and economic liberties that are at the foundation of any free society, they are all threatened and undermined by the incorporation of the entire panoply of interventionist and welfare-statist privileges and entitlements. (See “The Fundamental Rights of the European Union: Individual Rights or Welfare State Privileges? Part 1,” Freedom Daily, January 2001.)

What can remain of freedom of association and, therefore, the freedom to peacefully collaborate with others with whom one shares views, values, and goals, when Article 21 of the charter strictly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, disability, age, or sexual orientation?

Joel Edwards, general director of the Evangelical Alliance in Great Britain, has expressed concern on the editorial page of The Daily Telegraph (Oct. 17, 2000) that Christians as well as all other faiths may find themselves open to legal prosecution and imprisonment if they refuse to hire for a church-organization job, for example, a militant atheist who applies for a secretarial position. The plaintiff could easily argue that religious orientation is irrelevant to typing letters or filing forms and correspondence. Refusal to hire would risk fine and incarceration for violating one of the group-identifying “rights.”

Editorial writer Melanie Phillips has pointed out in the London Sunday Times (June 4, 2000) that under the European Union’s Burden of Proof Directive, someone who has been accused of such employment discrimination would be presumed guilty until he had proved his own innocence.

She warned that Europe was now going to experience all the consequences the United States has been enduring under affirmative-action laws, since the charter endorses quotas based on sex. She also warned that the centralized intrusiveness of the European Court of Justice into the private and market affairs of every citizen of a member country was likely to grow as a result.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (well-known for his blistering news reports and commentaries during the Clinton scandals) pointed out in The Daily Telegraph (Sept. 21, 2000) that the charter threatened to turn all of European industry into a “stakeholder” society, since labor unions are not only given the right to strike and picket across national borders, but are tacitly given decision-making veto power within private enterprises, because under Article 26 workers are guaranteed the right of “consultation” over all matters relating to their employment.

And Europeans may have to say good-bye to the morning delivery of newspapers at their doorsteps, since Article 31 prohibits all employment of school-age children. The institutional consequence for all the member countries, Evans-Pritchard said, was that decision-making power over the allocation of resources, the employment of labor, and the overall way people in society associate and work would be shifted into the hands of the European Union judges who would determine the legality and guidelines for all human relationships, even when private relationships are peaceful and voluntary.

The end of economic freedom

What will be left of freedom of enterprise when no worker under European Union law can be dismissed without approval of the centralized legal system, on the ground that it is an “unjustified dismissal” or because every worker has a right to conditions respectful of his “dignity”? Who will define “dignity” and how will it be defined unambiguously?

Or when it is defined as a fundamental right to have a paid vacation, how is it to be paid without compulsion against the employer? Or when it is stated that “the use of property may be regulated insofar as is necessary for the general interest,” what aspect of a private firm’s activities will not come within the orbit of the control, regulation, and command of the centralized European Union bureaucracy?

Which tax burdens are to be permanently imposed on the entire population of the European Union, when it is promised that the elderly and the disabled have the “right” to a “life of dignity and independence” and the right to “participate in social and cultural life”?

Will there now be quotas of elderly and disabled people in garden or literary clubs? And will the literary club members be compelled to finance the supply of books they discuss in Braille for the blind participants they are mandated to accept as members?

And, of course, the charter makes social security, medical care, and unemployment compensation all “fundamental rights” set in stone for the entire European community.

On the editorial pages of the European edition of The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 26, 2000), Francis Maude, Britain’s Conservative Party shadow foreign minister, argued,

The Charter is an attempt to lock Europe — from free-market Ireland and Britain in the West, to post-communist Poland and Hungary in the East — into a failing center-left economic and social model…. It is an attempt to shut out globalization by an intellectually bankrupt political elite that does not understand the past and is fearful of the future.

What will become of Muir’s fourth freedom of free trade in men, goods, capital, and ideas between the European Union and the rest of the world, when every aspect of any corner of life is to be completely politicized in the name of fundamental rights that the increasingly centralized legal and bureaucratic power structures will be responsible to dictate and enforce?

Under the guise of humanitarian paternalism, Europe is about to once again turn its back on its centuries-old traditions and heritage of freedom. The source of this rejection of freedom is the same as the more brutal rejection in the 20th century under fascist, Nazi, and Soviet totalitarianism. It is a continuing and tacit acceptance of the socialist critique of capitalist, free-market society.

The premises are that when men are left free to associate voluntarily the employers will exploit the workers and that employees are unable to look after their own interests without political intervention.

It is the idea that men cannot be trusted to plan for themselves, either for their present or their future; they need a political elite to compel them to plan for their retirement, their health care, their children’s education, and even their daily amenities of life.

It is an embedded cynicism that men must be forced to be charitable and caring toward their fellow men because if left to themselves they would show no generosity or kindness to those less well-off. It is the hubris of the social engineer who presumes to have the wisdom, ability, and the right to recreate society in his own preferred image.

When these attitudes prevail and take hold in the political, social, and cultural arena, freedom is lost. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union incorporates all of them. And this is what bodes ill for the full restoration of freedom in Europe in the 21st century.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).