Friday, May 02, 2003

Wrong Take on Basic Human Rights

Tibor R. Machan

The University of California Press is one of the more prestigious university book publishers, so for one to get a manuscript accepted and published there, one must jump through many hoops. Manuscripts are usually sent out to peer scholars; if they like it the editors take the MS to a board that authorized issuing a contract for the book.
In certain fields of study this means pretty much that only books with a certain point of view will get the nod. Those of us looking for publishers can, thus, get a pretty good clue about whether we have a chance for one or another publisher by just looking at what they have published recently.
In light of this I should definitely not try to get the UC Press to take a look at any of my manuscripts that I would like to have published by a prestigious press, no sir. Why?
One of the books UC Press has just published is “Pathologies of Power; Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor.” The author Paul Farmer is praised by Tracy Kidder, who is the author of The Soul of a New Machine, for have produced “An eloquent plea for…human rights that would not neglect the most basic rights of all: food, shelter and health….” The foreword to the book is written by one of my favorite intellectual adversaries, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen of Trinity College, Cambridge UK (soon to move to Harvard University to hold a most prestigious chair). All these have lined up giving this book their blessing. And that is too bad.
People wonder why the West—especially America and Great Britain—is seen in such a bad light by prominent folks around the globe! One clear reason is in evidence in the praise given to Paul Farmer’s book by Tracy Kidder and those who did the peer reviews and decided to publish the book—they seem not to have a clear idea about what is a fundamental, basic human right. One cannot repeat this often enough: no one has a basic right to food, shelter and health.
Just think of it for a moment. To have a basic right means all others are obligated to make sure it is not violated. With bona fide basic rights, such as to one’s life and liberty, this poses no problem because all others need to do to respect them is to abstain for intruding in one’s life and liberty. You respect my right to my life by not killing me; the right to my liberty by no assaulting or kidnapping me; my right to private property by not robbing or stealing fro me. You need do nothing for me, only abstain from becoming an intruder. Such basic rights have, thus, been dubbed “negative” rights.
Compare this with respecting a basic right to “food, shelter and health.” To do this one must actually work for others. The legal protection of these rights means, plain and simple, forced labor! If I have a right to food, those making food must provide me with food without compensation, just as I do not have to pay you if you do not murder, assault or rob me. So, such so called basic rights mean nothing less than the conscription of those who provide the goods to which we allegedly have basic rights (or the forcible taking of wealth from others so as to pay for the services). They have, thus, been named “positive” rights, requiring positive actions from others at the point of a gun.
Despite the evident forced labor implications of the “positive” rights idea, this kind of book gets to be published by a major American press, supported and endorsed by famous people. There should then be no great wonder about why the Western tradition of liberalism—the idea, as per the US Declaration of Independence, that public policy must aim first an foremost toward the securing of our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—is so defenseless from the intellectual community. Securing such rights is in direct conflict with securing those that author Paul Farmer insists are our basic human rights.
It is a constant source of puzzle to me that major intellectuals in Western universities and their presses have so little understanding of or appreciation for what it is that makes the Western World the envy of the rest, namely, its more or less strict protection of the right to individual liberty. Once such a right is secured, the securing of food, shelter and health care becomes a task for us all, a task that seems to be carried out much more successfully in the largely liberal West than where those other alleged rights, requiring governments to regiment people to respect them, are supposed to be held as basic.

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