In 1948, while America had just defeated one brutal dictatorship (Nazi Germany), another (the Soviet Union) was in the process of enslaving half of Europe. Never was the concept of rights more in need of a definitive statement and defense. Tragically, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — adopted by the United Nations 50 years ago to provide such a defense — failed at that task. It was instead a destructive distorter of individual rights.
The nature of this distortion can be seen in the difference between the first two-thirds of the U.N. Declaration and its final third. The first 21 articles seek to protect the individual from government coercion. For example: “Everyone has a right to life, liberty, and security of person” (Article 3); “Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others” (Article 17); “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression” (Article 19).
The common theme of these articles is the right to be left alone — to be protected from the initiation of physical force by the government. Thus, one must be free from persecution for one’s political views, from being arbitrarily imprisoned, or from having one’s property seized. Such rights are crucial to human life. Men cannot learn, make new discoveries, forge long-range plans, or enjoy the rewards of their effort, if they live under the constant threat of being looted, imprisoned, or murdered.
The last section of the U.N. Declaration, however, attempts to destroy the concept of individual rights by redefining it. The right to be left alone, in this new approach, is rejected as “narrow” and “negative”; it doesn’t allow for “positive rights” to such things as: “protection against unemployment” (Article 23); “rest and leisure, including . . . periodic holidays with pay” (Article 24); “food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services” (Article 25); and even to art (Article 27). The question never asked is: Who is to provide all these goods?
These “positive rights” are the antithesis of genuine rights. Genuine rights shield the individual from coercion by the state; “positive rights,” however, mandate such coercion. If government must provide housing, medical care, leisure, and art to the people — the only way to do so is to seize the wealth and effort of some men in order to provide unpaid and unearned benefits to others. Article 4 of the Declaration proclaims: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.” Yet that is exactly what this last group of articles requires: that some men be forced into servitude to the state — so that others can enjoy the “right” to the product of their efforts.
Can one have a right to one’s property — when that property is confiscated to provide others with an “adequate standard of living”? Can the owner of a radio station exercise his rights to property and to free speech — when he is forced to provide “public access” to his studios and transmitters, so that others may “freely participate in the cultural life of the community” at his expense? Can anyone have a right to his own life, when the government may order him to devote it to furnishing his neighbors with their “positive rights”?
It is revealing that the U.N. Declaration’s litany of entitlements ends with the assertion, in Article 29, that “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.” In a truly Orwellian climax, the Declaration brazenly upholds, as an example of man’s rights and freedoms, the individual’s duty to serve the state.
This is why the U.N. Declaration has undermined efforts to fight for true individual rights. The corrupt concept of “positive rights” has allowed such bloody crushers of rights as the Soviet Union and China to be major and respected members of an organization ostensibly created to defend rights. An illuminating statement by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute explains, “Civil and political rights were more heavily emphasized in liberal-democratic countries while economic and social rights were aggressively advocated by what were then (in the late 1940’s) Communist countries.” So the socialist dictatorships were, and still are, welcomed into the community of civilized nations because they are seen as “aggressive advocates” of rights, as nations that merely choose to “emphasize” a different set of rights.
The “positive rights” championed by the U.N. Declaration are neither positive nor rights. They mandate a profound negative — the initiation of force against the individual — and they are the enemies of genuine rights. In their place, we should uphold the real “positive,” as proclaimed in another famous Declaration — the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which means: the right of the individual to live free from coercive interference by the government.