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Wrong Rights

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BRACE YOURSELF. We are about to witness the launch of a global movement to establish economic and social rights on a par with human rights. In other words, say the organizers of this movement, the right to food and health care is as legitimate as the right not to be tortured by ones government. (See The Economist, August 16.)

A sign of this change in the human-rights crusade can be seen at Amnesty International (AI), which has been debating whether to broaden its mission to include promotion of these alleged rights. Until now AI has focused on the subjection of individuals to selected government violence, such as the jailing of journalists and the execution of criminals. Government violations of property rights, however, have never been a keen interest of AIs directors.

The Economist reports that the Ford Foundation and Britains Oxfam are also indicating new interest in economic and social issues. And then theres the United Nations. Its weekly magazine noted,

Since 1998, the World Health Organisation has been asking the international community to recognise health as a human right. In A Human Rights Approach to TB, a document issued in March, the WHO inelegantly points out the obligation of states to provide some sort of redress that people know about and can access if they feel that their health-related rights have been impinged on.

The rethinking of the human-rights agenda, says The Economist, is prompted by the belief that political and civil rights are of little use when a country is ravaged by poverty and disease. Africa is uppermost in the minds of those taking this tack. But there is a more cynical reason, as The Economist brings out. Rights talk may be where the money is:

In addition, human-rights groups worry that the governments of the rich world are not responding to this [AIDS] catastrophe with enough vigour, and that using rights talk may shake them out of their torpor. Doing something about AIDS in Africa is not about charity or public-health prevention. It is a matter of obligation, says Mr. [Michael] Ignatieff [of Harvards Carr Centre of Human Rights Policy]. The rights argument is a way to leverage money to fulfill this obligation. Whereas calls for generosity can only pluck weakly at the sleeves of rich governments, perhaps unsubtle claims of legal obligation will twist their arms.

Theres nothing subtle about that. Its a shakedown. If appeals to charity dont work, make Westerners believe they have a legally enforceable obligation to turn over their treasure to a continent of people who have shown scant signs of wishing to help themselves.

Since freed from colonialism, most African countries have been subjected to one form of virulent homegrown statism after another. Property rights have been nearly nonexistent. Socialism and brutal civil war have been rampant. Capitalism is barely known, and unsurprisingly economic growth is a fantasy, if anyone even knows what it means.

No wonder poverty and disease prevail. The rulers have no interest in displacing socialism with free markets. Why give up power? Its easier to blame colonialism, which ended decades ago. (The last Western colony, Hong Kong, looks nothing like Africa.)

The economic and social-rights philosophy will not only provide leverage to expropriate Western taxpayers, it will be used by the forces of political power to condemn the relatively free countries of the world. For example, the right to health care will be interpreted as the right to equal access to medical services. A nation with a decrepit system in which everyone, theoretically, has the same access to the same low level of services would rank higher than the United States, in which there is uneven access to much better care.

Although the poorest American has better care than the people in primitive egalitarian countries, the United States stands condemned for not honoring the right to health care (sometimes called the right to health!). The WHO recently ranked Americas medical system 37th out of 191. Who ranked first? France! Second? Italy! As Twila Brase has written, When was the last time someone chose France or Italy over America for health care? (WHOs Hidden Agenda, Ideas on Liberty, December 2000, p. 8.)

The nature of rights

The decision to push for economic and social rights raises the long-time controversy concerning so-called positive and negative rights. Negative rights is the term that has been applied to traditional Western Lockean rights. They boil down to a single negative: the right not to be molested as long as one does not initiate violence. That conception of rights yields the right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. If one is free of forcible interference, he may, so long as he himself molests no one else, act to achieve values, appropriate unowned land and objects, engage in trade, and so on. Others are obligated merely to abstain from using force against him.

That is the conception of rights Adam Smith had in mind when he wrote, We may often fulfill all the rules of justice by sitting still and doing nothing (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Pt. 1, sec. 2, ch. 1).

Positive rights are radically different. They signify an entitlement to something, which creates more than a negative obligation on the part of others. When advocates of social and economic rights speak of rights to food and health care, they do not mean that people have a right to take action to acquire those things from nature or from willing providers. They mean, rather, that others have an obligation to provide those things (or the money equivalent) whether they want to or not. By implication, the refusal to provide them constitutes a violation of rights.

Under this conception of rights, Smiths principle would fall short, because one could not do justice merely by sitting still and doing nothing. Doing nothing would include not paying taxes, and not paying taxes, under the positive-rights philosophy, would violate the rights of others to those things the taxes would finance, such as food and health care.

Positive rights and negative rights are mutually exclusive. If one conception holds sway, the other disappears. There can be no right to food per se alongside the right not to be molested. If Jones refuses to provide Smith food (or money for food), the rights of one or the other will be violated. Either Joness choice will be respected, in which case Smiths alleged right to food will be nullified, or Jones will be forced to provide the food or money, in which case his right not to be molested will be ignored. There is no middle ground.

Unfortunately, The Economist misses this distinction between what are called human rights on the one hand and economic and social rights on the other. First, it should be noted that human rights overlap with traditional negative, natural, or Lockean rights, but they do not correspond exactly to them. While human rights include the freedom from torture and murder, they do not include property rights per se. They also include the right to vote, which is not a natural right but at best a derivative from natural rights.

(A strong case can be made that in fact it is not a derivative right at all, since it entails the selection of officeholders who will rule over others and not merely ones self. Apart from the specific consent of all parties, no one has the right to empower someone to rule over others.)

But leaving aside that detail, it is worth noting that The Economist, a prominent establishment voice, does not see a clear line between positive and negative rights. Both can be codified and enforced, the editors write, and the enforcement of both requires expenditures, and therefore choices, by the state.

And arguments that deem any given positive liberty too expensive to protect are really saying, in part, that the property rights recognised in the existing distribution of income must take priority over any new rights. Perhaps they should take priority but advocates of the new rights are at least entitled to ask, on what grounds?

This misses the point. The distinction does not concern whether positive rights can be codified, whether resources are required to enforce them, or whether they are too expensive to implement. The difference is this: Negative rights in their very conception require no initiation of force. Positive rights do. Rights are principles for averting conflict so that individuals may live productive lives. Positive rights by their nature create conflict. Negative rights do not. For that reason, positive rights are not rights at all. Rather, they are powers assumed by government.

Many people attracted to the positive-rights program may be motivated by concern for people living in truly appalling conditions. If they understood that those conditions are sustained by the absence of negative rights specifically, property rights they might see the error in their thinking.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.