Wonky on Civil Rights
I have to admit that I am a bit wonkish (American version – not the British) when it comes to civil rights. You, dear reader, may not be so wonkish on civil rights – few people are. But if you are indeed wonkish on civil rights you would be interested in reading Aaron Rhodes recently published book, The Debasement of Human Rights (2018).
Wait a minute, I can hear you say. Mr. Rhodes is writing about human rights, not civil rights. What’s the difference?
And that’s the problem. The whole concept of rights has become a jumbled mess so that no one knows what they are, when they are being violated or are in conflict with each other allowing some rights to be trampled in order to fulfill other rights.
What we in America (at least initially) understood as civil rights were rights and liberties derived from natural (some might say God given) rights. Natural rights are the rights enjoyed by all individuals living in a state of nature and are considered universal because they apply to all people. But the state of nature is unnatural and unsustainable because human beings are social animals and live in societies whether small (familial), mid-sized (tribal) or large (nation states). But in order to live in a society, people must cede a portion of their natural rights to a government, especially where they interfere with the ability of other people to enjoy their natural rights.
But when the Founders sought to formulate the society of the new American Republic, they stated that certain rights were not to be ceded to society or restricted by government. Some of these rights (also known as liberties) were enumerated in the Bill of Rights. But the Founders believed that there might be other rights beyond the scope of any enumeration such as the Bill of Rights and so included the Tenth Amendment that restricts the federal government to only those powers specifically delegated to it in the Constitution, reserving all other powers to the people and the states.
These civil rights or liberties, so magnificently conceived, were poorly implemented. Slavery (the greatest violation of liberty) was condoned and required a great Civil War to emancipate the large swath of our population that had been held in slavery for centuries. But even after constitutional amendments emancipating and enfranchising the former slaves (at least the men but that’s another story), segregation and Jim Crow laws kept the black citizens of the United States from enjoying the blessings of liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. It took the concerted actions by many levels of government and the people (including Supreme Court decisions, legislation, a constitutional amendment and, eventually, a change in attitude of most people) to begin to remedy the situation. As far as we have come, many people think we have farther yet to go. Perhaps we shall never reach that city on the hill, but we shall keep on trying (which is more than I can say about other countries). We keep trying because the philosophical ideal of liberty is embedded in our concept of what is America.
All this windy elaboration of the definition of civil rights is but a prelude to our discussion of Mr. Rhodes’ book (talk about wonky). Mr. Rhodes places much of the blame for the current sad state of civil and human rights on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor. In 1944, during the Second World War, President Roosevelt proposed in his State of the Union Address a Second Bill of Rights that would include “economic rights”.
These “rights” included such things as employment, housing, healthcare, social security and education. President Roosevelt and his successors (including some Republicans) have implemented many of these “rights” through legislation and regulation. But they have not achieved the status of the Bill of Rights because amending the Constitution would likely prove to be too high a hurdle.
What’s more, Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which was not signed by many East bloc and Middle Eastern countries – so much for the universality of these rights). The UDHR contains many of the civil liberties included in our Bill of Rights but also includes FDR’s list of “economic rights”.
The problem is that “economic rights”, which are also known as entitlements, and good old fashion civil rights are mutually exclusive. While “economic rights” are all worthy goals, goals are qualitatively different from rights. Civil or political rights require that the government refrain taking any action against a person, hence they are often called negative rights. Entitlements, on the other hand, require that government take action for a person, hence they are called positive rights.
And there’s the rub (as Hamlet would have said). The government can’t provide positive rights or entitlements. It can only force other people to give up some of their property so that the government can give this expropriated property to someone else so that they can enjoy their “economic rights”. Enjoyment of these positive human rights requires government coercion - the opposite of liberty.
As Mr. Rhodes accurately points out in his book, the international human rights community has eagerly adopted these so-called human rights. The books goes into a great amount of detail about how the United Nations and various international human rights organizations have pushed the concept that these economic rights are equal to and indivisible from political rights despite the fact that they are conceptually completely different.
The promotion of the idea that economic rights are indivisible from (and perhaps even an essential precursor to) political rights has led many developing countries to request and even demand developmental assistance from developed countries. The lack of economic rights has also been used to justify authoritarian regimes and to argue that political rights cannot be granted until development goals have been achieved.
The end result of this push for economic rights over political rights has been a retreat from democracy in many countries around the world. This was noted by Freedom House that reported “2016 marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.”
The chief promoter of this flawed concept of “rights” has been the United Nations as highlighted by Mr. Rhodes. One only has to realize that the organ of the United Nations charged with promoting human rights as defined in the UDHR (the Human Rights Council) is composed of such great bastions of freedom as Afghanistan, Bolivia, China, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cuba, Egypt, Iraq, Nicaragua, Moldova, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Thailand and Venezuela.
Although the United Nations was conceived by the United States as an inclusive institution that would promote American ideals of peace and cooperation around the globe, it has devolved into a gross bureaucratic administrative state that promotes a soviet-style notion of the primacy of economic rights over civil rights. This human rights infection has also spread to other international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
The irony about this drive for economic rights over civil and political rights is that free people working in a country with a free market economy are more likely to achieve these economic “rights” than in the authoritarian regimes that seek development funds from the developed (and free) West.
America and its democratic friends and allies must create a freedom loving international organization to promote the concept of civil and political rights that is capable of resisting this onslaught against freedom and to promote Western ideals and values. NATO could be used as the basis for this organization by taking on new roles in addition to it current defense role. The dangers that confront us and our allies are not limited to the military.
One final note. This international push by authoritarian regimes to push economic rights over political rights has the same Marxist conceptual basis as the push by the American progressive left to endorse even increasing entitlements onto the American people. The only cost is your freedom. Think about that.