All those in favor, sign here -- but not me!

By Sean Hackbarth
web posted October 1998

I just got the latest issue of Wired magazine. Iím got half-way through it, and what got me really thinking wasnít any of the articles. Yeah, the article about how fleeting digital data formats are got me thinking about the trials future historians and researchers will have in trying to decipher our documents that make up our digital culture. The small piece about American high-tech companies selling watchdog technology to developing countries like Peru, Argentina, and South Korea to help their governments keep an eye on their citizens got me thinking about Orwellís 1984.

But what peaked my interest and got my political juices bubbling was an ad by the uber-portal Excite. The ad is asking people to add their name to the six million other signatures in support of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Joint sponsor, Amnesty International will present the signatures to the United Nations to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration.

Now, just superficially thinking about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, you may feel knee-jerk support for it. Who is really against human rights? In the past 30 years, we have seen how brutal and repressive governments can be. In 1989, the world witnessed how the communist Chinese government attacked the thousands of students demanding democratic reforms in Tiennaman Square. We read the stories of the thousands of Argentineans in the 1970s who "disappeared" while challenging the ruling junta. And arguably, the most visible example of government oppression was the building of the Berlin Wall blocking East Germans from freely leaving their oppressive government. No one wants to see people denied their God-given human rights.

But looking at the thirty articles making up the Declaration, a strain implicit throughout it prevents me from joining the other six million signers.

The Declaration starts off well. Article One says "All human beings are born free and equal." Article Two says "Everyone is entitled to the same rights without discrimination." Article Four condemns torture. Article Seven declares "the right to protection of the law." Article Nine declares "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile." Article Seventeen proclaims the right to property (an extremely important right). Articles Eighteen and Nineteen declare "The right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion" and "The right to freedom of opinion and expression." Articles Twenty and Twenty-one declare the right to peaceful assembly and association and the right to take part in government.

These parts of the Declaration I can fully support, it is the other articles I have problems with. Article Three declares "The right to life, liberty, and security." It is 66% right. All people have a fundamental right to life and liberty. We have the right to be free from coercion if we respect the equal rights of others, but a right to security requires taking from others. The Social Security program is a good example. In order for the social insurance program to be as stable and effective as it is (and both are questionable[link]), all workers must be forced to enroll in it. That way the less successful can drain money from the more successful. It is a disguised transfer program pure and simple.

Article Twenty-two says we have a "right to social security and the shared benefits of societyís progress." This may sound good to those who hate a society where billionaires and the homeless existing simultaneously, but the article contradicts Article Seventeenís right to own property. There canít be the right to own property and the right to then take property away to share it among the rest of society. What is the point of starting a business, investing, and working if the everyone else has a right to a piece of it?

Then there is the "right to work," the "right to rest and leisure," the "right to a decent standard of living," and the "right to education." None of these rights can be exercised unless the rights of others are denied. To be entitled to a job, someone has to hire you. If jobs are not available, that means employers have to be forced to hire the unemployed, or the government has to take tax dollars and create make-work jobs. To have education and leisure, you need resources. Education and leisure suck up resources, and those resources have to come from somewhere. Either money is freely exchanged or it is taken. Forcing others to provide jobs and leisure tramples over property rights and the right to free association.

The problem with the Declaration is that it is based on the concept of positive liberty. Philosopher Isiah Berlin described two different concepts of liberty: negative liberty and positive liberty. Negative liberty is the absence of the initiation of force. Free speech is an example of negative liberty. Exercising free speech does not require anything from anyone else--all you need is your mouth. The right to free association is another example of negative liberty. You have the right to associate with whom you see fit, but it doesnít force others to associate with you. You can start a club, but you canít force people to join.

Positive liberty is the freedom to something in order to exercise a right. The right to education is an example of positive liberty. In order to exercise that right schools have to be paid for and for there to be universal education, tax dollars will have to be used. The right to health care is another example. Hospitals, doctors, nurses, drugs, and medical equipment arenít cheap, and for everyone to have these readily available, the money has to come from somewhere.

The fact is positive liberty is not really liberty at all. At least, it isnít for the person who has to supply the means for the other person to exercise their right. Joseph Knight writes , "[y]ou have the right to earn a living, but not to compel others to provide your living." Just because it may be nice and good to provide everyone with welfare benefits, health insurance, retirement money, and all the other goodies government doles out, does not mean government can dig into the wallets of its citizens.

What the Declaration promotes is essentially unlimited taxation and confiscation of property. Like I said above, a right to education, health care, and other examples of positive liberty must be paid for. The most likely source would be taxpayers. If these "rights" could be funded through voluntary means, then, presumably, the free market would be able to satisfy these rights.

In some ways, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its forefather, the U.S. Declaration of Independence are similar. They both state plainly that all people human rights and that government must respect those rights. But while Jeffersonís document understood liberty as negative and made an eloquent case for small government, the U.N.ís version enlarges the role of the state and diminishes the liberty of all people.




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