The recent dramatic rescue of hostages formally held by Columbian FARC rebels helps to illustrate the importance of distinguishing real rights from “human rights” (which are in fact a violation of rights.) The alliance between the leftist guerillas of Columbia, the Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez and “human rights” NGOs is no accident. By elevating key human values to the status of rights, they make rights seem contradictory, in need of compromise and balance. In the end, the true individual rights of Life, Liberty and Property are sacrificed in the name of being humane. But human sacrifice is never humane, and properly defined rights are never contradictory.
Poverty is heartrending. All its attendant suffering due to lack of food, shelter, access to health care, education and meaningful employment, is tragic. The desire to relieve the suffering is commendable, but ends can never justify the means. When the means advocated involve violating the rights of one individual for the sake of another, an error has been committed that can only end in greater suffering and destruction of life.
Important lessons can be learned by comparing the American and French Revolutions, their differing views on rights, and the events which followed from these views. The United States was constructed on the principles of Life, Liberty and Property. Even though Jefferson substituted “pursuit of happiness” for property in the Declaration of Independence, in other writings he makes clear his appreciation of the central role of property to individual rights. The US Constitution and the works of Hamilton, Adams and Madison (and many others) provide further justifications for limiting rights to these three key elements. What resulted was a limited form of government restricted to the defense of individual rights with the bulk of human interactions remaining private. By restricting rights to life, liberty and property and restricting the role to the defense of these rights, government has no call for initiating force on some citizens for the sake of others. The bulk of human interactions remain private, outside the sphere of government. What followed was a period of relative peace and an explosion of prosperity unparalleled in human history. A different choice of “rights” led to a different kind of government and an aftermath of bloody conflicts destructive to life and well-being.
The French Revolution took as its battle cry not individual rights but “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Equality and brotherhood were considered more important than property rights. Popular sovereignty (the will of the people) was placed supreme over individual rights. The coercive power of the state was used to separate people from their heads and their property with equal abandon. The result was such chaos and arbitrary rule that the dictatorship of Napoleon was a comparative relief in its stability.
Liberty is not license. The limits to liberty are set by the life, person and property of others. Liberty is freedom of action, but a freedom which excludes the initiation of force toward others. One man’s rights end where another man’s rights begin. With this understanding, rights do not conflict. Lack of conflict brings with it peace and prosperity.
“Human rights” which start with life, liberty and property but then overreach proper limits to include “rights” to food, shelter, well-being, etc., have led to apparent conflicts in rights and the subsequent push for governments to initiate force in the name of “justice.” Such “human rights” give common cause between well-meaning humanitarians and the political systems of socialism and communism. Attempts to provide these “human rights” necessarily involve initiating force against proper liberties and property, which is why what seems good in theory (the theory of “human rights”) ends in oppression and dictatorship.
FDR’s famous 1941 Four Freedoms speech struck a severe blow to the general concept of rights when he included freedom from fear and want in his list of fundamental rights. The other two rights he included (speech and religion) are important derivatives of individual rights, but they are not the most fundamental. Further damage to the proper understanding of rights occurred with the passage in 1948 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in particular Articles 21-30 which include claims of “rights” to dignity, free education, a decent standard of living, social security and “favorable conditions of employment.”
To illustrate the contradictions involved, one example will have to suffice: the “right” to health care. Since governments exist to protect rights, if there truly is a right to health care (or food, or shelter, or education etc.) then it is the government’s job to guarantee it. But health care only exists because of the actions of individuals: doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and so forth. Health care providers must be controlled and directed, or someone’s property must be confiscated in order to purchase the voluntary cooperation of health care providers. Both tactics involve the violation of one person’s right to serve the “right” of another. Only a proper definition of rights avoids this apparent contradiction, a definition that limits rights to life, liberty and property.
Turning values to be achieved (adequate nutrition, meaningful employment, housing, education) into “human rights” to be guaranteed by force makes atrocities appear justified. Because property rights stand in opposition to implementing “human rights,” terrorist rebels, repressive regimes and “humanitarian” organizations think they have common cause against the up-holders of property rights. But the inalienable connection between the right to Property and the rights to Life and Liberty means you can not violate one without violating them all.
Until this is understood, we will not be unified in our struggle to create liberty and prosperity. Values improperly elevated to the status of rights will destroy both.