According to mainstream human rights thinking all human rights are “indivisible". Therefore, this mantra insists, economic, social and cultural rights such as the right to an adequate living and the right to social security should not be treated differently from classic freedom rights such as free speech and habeas corpus. This conflation of very different rights is a fallacy. No Western state has built its wealth on constitutional rights to social goods. However, Western freedom has in large part been built on individual freedom rights protecting against arbitrary and authoritarian state action. The so called indivisibility also reveals a marked political bias. Much literature and jurisprudence on social rights emphasize the importance of state involvement in the economy, increased public spending and the limitation or even abolishment of free market initiatives.
But claiming that a certain way of addressing poverty is a human rights obligation simply serves to elevate such political views to moral and legal imperatives that trump competing views. On the other hand, in a liberal democracy political opponents from left and right will generally agree that is incompatible with basic human rights to censor the media or use torture.
Social rights institutionalize a vision of society based on a specific political agenda, which excludes political pluralism and undermines the rule of law and separation of powers. Moreover, rather than restraining government action, social rights require governments to take prime responsibility for large parts of human life that would otherwise be left to the individual. Ultimately, therefore, social rights endanger the freedom secured by freedom rights. Such a development represents a huge step backwards from hard-won liberties. It is therefore high time that advocates of human rights resist their politicization and focus on fighting for the right of everyone to live in freedom. To that end, freedom rights should be embraced and social rights rejected.
Jacob Mchangama is head of legal affairs at the Danish think tank CEPOS and external lecturer of international human rights law at the University of Copenhagen. His briefing paper – The War on Capitalism: Human rights, political bias – is published by the ASI today. Click here to download a PDF. You can also watch Jacob making his case to Amnesty International here.