Rights are not entitlements
- Ivo Vegter
- 10 Apr 2012 05:35 (South Africa)
Last year, the Sunday Telegraph launched a campaign under the slogan, End the Human Rights Farce.
The slogan was rather broad and provocative, and out of context it suggests that human rights themselves were being denounced as a farce. That it featured a photograph of a shifty-looking, cigarette-smoking Iraqi did little to dispel the superficial image of a reactionary and possibly racist diatribe.
However, the newspaper had a good argument.
An illegal immigrant, after having been disqualified from driving for repeatedly being caught driving without a licence (a penalty the paper notes is absurd on the face of it), eventually caused an accident that killed a young girl.
Almost a decade later, the legal fight against his deportation was still alive, and his lawyers had just bolstered it by claims of a “family life”.
The European Convention on Human Rights, and the consequent Human Rights Act in Britain, grants people the “right to respect for private and family life”, and says that “there shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary...”
The immigrant’s claim is that his present life with his wife or fiancée (even his lawyers seem unsure), two step-children, and two more children he fathered with the woman in question, constitute a “family life” with which the UK government cannot legally interfere. The Sunday Telegraph notes that asylum had been denied him before any of this happened, and lists a string of convictions in the intervening years, as well as evidence that the family life which the defendant claims to value so highly is rather less tranquil and secure than his lawyers would have the courts believe.
There appear to be compelling reasons for not granting him the “right” he claims, and last weekend, almost a year after launching its campaign, the paper was able to quote the UK’s Home Secretary: “By the summer, I will have changed the immigration rules so that we can end the abuse of the right to a family life.”
Alhough a harsh reaction to abuse of the law will undoubtedly have its own unintended consequences, it is hard to argue that this is not a reasonable response to a high-profile case in which “rights” rhetoric was abused to claim benefits that clearly were not intended in law.
That there is even any question about this matter demonstrates considerable confusion over what we unthinkingly call “human rights”.
For example, it is common for populist politicians to cite various rights, from a Constitution, from political declarations such as the Freedom Charter, or from international statements on human rights, to argue that people not only ought to be left alone, but ought to receive material benefits of one sort of another.
How exactly they are to be obtained is usually left vague, but when the people have a right to housing, well, then houses is what they ought to have, not so?
It’s not so simple.
It is helpful to distinguish clearly between freedoms on one hand, and entitlements on the other. Freedoms are those rights that prevent another person – and in particular the state – from acting in a way that infringes your liberty. Entitlements are those rights that are economic in nature, and implicitly impose a financial obligation upon someone else.
Examples of the former, taken from South Africa’s Constitution, are the rights to privacy, to freedom of religion, to freedom of expression, freedom to assemble, picket and petition, freedom to form a political party, freedom of movement and residence, freedom of trade, occupation or profession, the right not to be deprived of property, and the right to just administrative action.
These rights cannot be arbitarily limited, and can only be limited by certain laws of general application, such as in cases where one has committed a crime.
This is where the Sunday Telegraph’s poster boy is wrong. Claiming freedoms that an undocumented immigrant does not merit in the first place might be defensible if one supports free, unfettered immigration, as I do. However, the chap in question used high-minded human right language to claim rights he additionally forfeited by dint of his negligent and criminal actions. That does, indeed, make a farce of the notion of “human rights”, as the Sunday Telegraph infers.
The lack of clarity about rights goes even deeper, however.
The right to economic, material things is fundamentally different from the right to freedoms. The South African Constitution in many cases is careful not to speak of the “right to”, but of the “right to have access to” material things like housing, healthcare, water, food and social security (though it omits this subtle nuance when speaking of the right to education).
The problem is this: if I have a right to healthcare, and I cannot, refuse to, or neglect to pay for it, someone else has to either provide it at no charge, or pay for it. If I have a right to housing, then someone has to buy or build me a house. If I have a right to food and water, which are indisputably necessities of life, and I fail for whatever reason to provide these for myself, then someone else is obliged, by law, to provide them for me.
This, in effect, means that someone else has to produce that to which I claim a basic human right, guaranteed to me in the Constitution.
There’s a word for people who are obliged to work for others without choice or payment. And those people, under the South African Constitution, have the right not to be subjected to slavery, servitude or forced labour.
The mere fact that one has a right to something does not mean the government, or anyone else, is obliged to provide it. In fact, the “access to” language hints at this.
Swaminathan Aiyar made the case eloquently in a column he penned in 2010 for the Times of India.
He writes: “Rights are not limited by budget constraints, but entitlements are. So, rights are universal but entitlements are not.”
It could be argued (and some scholars do) that even non-material rights such as a right to enjoy one’s property unmolested impose an obligation on others, in the sense that its implementation requires a judicial bureaucracy which the taxpayer has to fund. But drawing the line between non-material freedoms and material entitlements, as Aiyar and I both do, seems useful.
He cites the growing economic crises in developed welfare states as a warning. In the US and Europe, entitlement obligations are rapidly sinking the budgets of even the richest countries, and threaten future generations with entirely unsustainable debt burdens.
He does not deny that there are arguments in favour of limited entitlements, even in relatively poor developing countries like his own, and in fact notes that “Christian charity” was common in law throughout the industrialisation of Western nations such as Great Britain.
However, the distinction ought to be very clear. Arguing for entitlements is to advocate charity with other people’s money.
If you’re a taxpayer in support of entitlements, you’re demanding that the law require all other taxpayers to match your own generosity. And if you’re a likely beneficiary, you’re saying that you’re not capable of supporting yourself, and are happy to accept the “charity” of others, taken from them by force.
It is also to place a significant financial burden on the state. As a country grows richer, it can undoubtedly do more to fund education, housing for the poor, support for the jobless, or welfare to the disabled, the elderly or the orphans.
Observes Aiyar: “The communist experience shows that giving welfare rights priority over basic freedoms is the road to serfdom. And the capitalist welfare state now shows that entitlements, although desirable and inevitable in democracies, must be limited and targeted at the needy, so that they do not hog all spending or bankrupt governments.”
To make the case that basic freedoms are sacrosanct, we ought to be careful to distinguish between the essential freedoms that protect us from abuses by the state, and mere entitlements that place a burden on the fiscus and the productive capacity of our fellow-citizens.
A convincing moral case can be made for some entitlements, but they ought to be made with care, and with full awareness that they can never be simple absolutes in the way that our constitutional liberties are absolute.
More dangerously, over-arguing them, or reducing them to thoughtless rhetoric, risks the very freedoms we hold most dear. If politics consists of yelling “Housing for all” and “End the human rights farce” over the parapets at each other, it would be a shame if our true freedoms are caught in the crossfire. DM
- Voting: there’s still time to change your mind
- Green tech is cool, but not because it’s green
- How Mmusi Maimane swindled a vote out of me
- The case to elect Malema to Parliament
- The intellectual gnome, Chomsky
- If Malema isn’t Pol Pot, is he still dangerous?
- Do Malema's followers understand ‘agrarian reform’?
- Look ma, I'm defending Shell's record in Nigeria!
- Any weather is evidence for global warming
- U-turn prof finds his fracking fears are avoidable
- Ramphele et al: The world according to angry feminists
- On HIV/Aids and scary-big numbers
- Cherry-picking ‘grey literature’ on rhino horn
- 350,000 reasons to kill a black rhino
- Eight myths about libertarians
- New Year’s resolutions for other people
- All I want for Christmas is a fire pool
- In defence of Donald Trump
- My old South African flag
- Fearful Fukushima fiction fatigue
- Do we tolerate private sector corruption?
- In defence of a lion killer
- Save the rare wine and endangered craft beer
- Forever blowing bubbles: shale gas economics
- Promotion and Protection of Investment Bill: When “certainty” means “wait and see”
- This land is my land: a revolution
- The launch of SA's Libertarian Party: herding cats in time for 2014
- The African case against the ICC
- The fossil fuel subsidy myth
- Think of the little fishies!
- The hilariously misunderstood libertarian
- The sickly history of sweeteners
- Pants on fire, but they’re not mine
- The obstructionism of shale gas activists
- How mind-numbing numbers whip up fear
- Why pick on Khanyi Dhlomo?
- Half-measures will fail the rhino
- Malema’s righteous anger... and naïve confusion
- Lottery licence to go to one lucky winner
- Vaccinations: when the state stabs the people
- Do reusable shopping bags kill people?
- The long walk to serfdom
- The Karoo desperately needs development
- The trials of Samson Shuttleworth
- The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest
- Raping the discourse about rape
- Who is the reasonable man?
- Fracking: Debating a big deal
- Who needs the Queen’s English?
- Electric cars: Taking from the poor to give to the rich
- Business Licensing Bill: An indefensible defence
- Red-tape tourism
- The Big Business Bribery Bill
- On Thatcher and society, Vavi and the market
- Extinction: Let’s make up numbers and panic!
- Feeding the world is getting easier
- Stop talking shit: Build your own toilet
- Climate change is pseudo-science
- Anti-competitive competition law
- The Department of Less Government
- An open letter to President Zuma
- In defence of Kim Kardashian
- The world’s weirdest wildlife sanctuary
- Boycott calls are simple-minded
- In defence of vegans
- The population explosion implodes
- Environmental backpedalling picks up pace
- How Mangaung can help and hinder entrepreneurs
- The elusive libertarian enclave
- The Gathering: Ivo Vegter
- The hidden overemployment crisis
- The case for constructive environmentalism
- Privatise the Western Cape's shacks
- Tenders: Not open to employees or their families
- Hurricanes fuel climate sensationalism
- Next: Gross-out warnings on food
- No new deal: The failure of Zumanomics
- Benoni has a bright idea
- Was I wrong about acid rain?
- Public food gardens: Where dumb ideas thrive
- Rethinking the costly food label madness
- Give hunting a chance
- Fracking gets green light, but here's the risk
- Socialists, bless 'em, visit Cape Town
- Buy a 1Time ticket now
- Give the ANC credit where credit is due
- The myth of the competent apartheid government
- It's a disaster that 'peak oil' is not a disaster
- No Gravy: a label for sustainable business
- This lightbulb's going to blow
- Smokers? Get 'em up against the wall!
- Inflating the obesity scare
- Bring a Shotgun to School Day
- GMOs: Hacking genes to feed the world
- The hidden dangers of charity
- Fracking: the unread paper debated
- Fracking: The “U-turn” paper nobody has read
- Eco-cronyism is as dangerous as any other
- SKA: Be grateful Karoo residents didn't object
- Energy: Get cracking on fracking
- Fair trade, unfair trade-off
- Casual labour is only bad for Vavi's unions
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- How do we fix our dismal education?
- Barter: the rebirth of sound money
- Rights are not entitlements
- Debunking 'limits to growth' inanities
- Tax: Why align with "most other countries"?
- Newspaper sensationalism doesn't help rhinos
- Rolling Stone reprises Gasland's fracking fantasies
- Cosatu's manipulative march move
- Why do 16 million people not constitute an economy?
- The age of smear politics
- Does fracking cause earthquakes?
- The Chinese model is morbidly obese
- Green tech: doubling down on a losing bet
- Rape, pornography, and hell's grannies
- Petrol taxes won't hurt the poor
- Jailtime mooted for bad weather warnings
- Let's ban bans, and start with CITES
- In defence of overpaid sport stars
- On the death of Kim Jong-Il
- COP17: Let's ban fire
- Cancer gets you when nothing else can
- COP17: The 'party on' agenda
- COP17: The Blue Line of Death
- New seven natural inanities
- Occupiers' anger is all that makes sense
- The Luddites and Technocrats live on
- Malema marches for economic slavery
- Profitable purveyors of pudendal prettiness
- Sense? Us?
- If they want rhino horn, let's sell them some
- "Stimulate" economy by ending telco abuses
- Executive pay makes nobody poorer
- Malema's real persecution
- Mogoeng: Lock up your daughters
- Don't mandate insurance, deregulate healthcare
- I sympathise with Malema's persecution complex
- Short selling: panicked pols ban proof of failure
- Don't blame those who saw it coming
- What's obscene about profit?
- In defence of Bombela
- Dear president Zuma, you are not above the law
- The economics of love
- Treasure the Karoo? Ban the SKA!
- Malema is right, you know
- Gautrain's PPP: political patronage profiteering
- Kumi Naidoo is no hero
- LeadSA fails to lead when it matters
- No logo means carte blanche
- The drug war: dopey but dangerous
- A response to fracking critics
- Don't vote. It's your right.
- Welcome Walmart
- If you're happy and you know it clap your hands
- Buy local, support poverty
- Ubuntu, the free-market way
- Karoo fracking scandal exposed!
- I'm ashamed for my profession
- The bill of bunkum
- Being gay: a brand new concept!
- Who's afraid of the nuclear wolf?
- The nationalisation canard
- Ogilvy should grow a spine
- The new robber barons
- A classy revolution: Why we cared
- Bombastic Bombela balks
- Liberty is more than mere democracy
- Gautrain has a law unto itself
- The irony of 'services for all'
- How to hire a hitman in SA
- Arrive alive and neurotic
- The oppression of taxis
- Protection of Information Bill and why WikiLeaks is so dangerous
- Fifa, Russia and Qatar deserve each other
- One day, we'll all hate WikiLeaks
- The cycling mafia strikes again
- What Julius got for Christmas
- Let's return the beads
- Away with fascist seat belt laws
- Tintin Mbeki in the Sudan
- How the ANC can make everyone happy
- Currency: the race to the bottom.
- Hurrah for national healthcare!
- Give Zimbabweans citizenship
- Carte Blanche has no carte blanche
- That finger-licking, lip-smacking taste
- Bomb the barbaric lot already
- Green tax: another raid is coming
- Do strikers deserve anything?
- The media will lose this battle
- Global warmism needs a fisking
- A glass half-full
- Go ahead, have a baby
- Stop the handouts - end xenophobia
- The right to fire
- FIFA's heart of darkness
- Have some self-respect
- I ordered an orange skirt
- Secretly, Match blames South Africa
- The stupendous Gautrain: a rare marvel!
- The Fifa conquistadors are coming!
- What's wrong with everyone?
- Leave poor BP alone
- The destructive power of government
- The bonsai economy
- The darkness of Africa
- Who is ripping off whom?
- Anatomy of a whitewash
- While FIFA takes over, we fight
- The pointless pretence of Earth Hour
- Ten reasons to reject climate alarmism
- Really, boycott the FIFA farce
- The climate dominoes fall
- Lessons in ethics from Dick Cheney
- Screw the consumer
- In defence of bankers
- Break the banking cartel
- Julius Malema, the walking contradiction
- Boycott FIFA
- Climate clarity
- In defence of Boney M
- Pray Copenhagen fails
- Capitalism is not unkind
- Climate fraud kills people
- Pop goes the hot air balloon
- Peace, love and schadenfreude
- The irony of the left
- Too late to cool it?
- Going cold turkey