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The ideology of human rights

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10 September 2010 09:05

Development blogger William Easterly has uncovered a mid-1970s interview with free market economist Friedrich Hayek:

Certain main concerns can spread here (in the US) with an incredible speed. Take the conception of human rights. I’m not sure whether it’s an invention of the present administration or whether it’s of an older date, but I suppose if you told an eighteen year old that human rights is a new discovery he wouldn’t believe it. He would have thought the United States for 200 years has been committed to human rights, which of course would be absurd.

The United States discovered human rights two years ago or five years ago. Suddenly it’s the main object and leads to a degree of interference with the policy of other countries which, even if I sympathized with the general aim, I don’t think it’s in the least justified. People in South Africa have to deal with their own problems, and the idea that you can use external pressure to change people, who after all have built up a civilization of a kind, seems to me morally a very doubtful belief. But it’s a dominating belief in the United States now.

With all that we know about the Apartheid regime (and knew even then), Hayek's comment about South Africa seems pretty complacent.

But his observations about human rights are thought-provoking. Hayek was surely wrong about America 'discovering' human rights only in the late sixties or early seventies — the pre-history of what we now regard as 'human rights' runs right through America's founding, and is there in the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. And, of course, Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the UN commission that wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948.

Yet Hayek is right on the essential point: the language of human rights very quickly came to dominate the popular discourse about world affairs, and is these days almost unchallenged. Even Western political conservatives, who in theory are very sceptical of the idea of human rights, have largely resigned themselves to it – right-of-centre presidents, prime ministers and even popes regularly couch their discussions about international justice, development and democracy in terms of human rights.

It is a remarkable achievement, and not an altogether welcome one.

One problem is that the notion of human rights rests on a (noble) fiction, which is that these rights exist at all times and in all places for every human being. But in truth, it is pretty pointless to tell a child laborer in India that, as the UN Declaration of Human Rights says, he has a right to an education, because unless material conditions in his country improve, he will never enjoy this right. Similarly, there is little consolation for a Cuban political prisoner in knowing that he or she has a human right not to be subject to arbitrary arrest.

These things might be called fundamental human rights, but for such people, they are as elusive in practice as they are explicit in the abstract.

Where universal education and protection against arbitrary arrest do exist, it is because traditions have evolved in particular places that respect and support those practices. Far from being primordial or natural, these practices are actually concrete historical achievements that must be nurtured and promoted. Calling them human rights only disguises this truth and creates a misplaced grievance among those who are denied these 'rights'.

The idea that human rights are primordial and eternal also inhibits debate and compromise, since it implies that human rights ought to sit untouchably above the practical business of politics and diplomacy. And lastly, human rights suffer the shortcomings of all ideologies, which are really nothing more than brute abstractions of the incredible variety of real human experience. Ideology is a shortcut to a deep understanding of the political and social traditions of particular societies, but it is not a substitute.

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