Wrong About Rights

David Tucker

November 1, 1997

In the weeks leading up to his meeting in Washington with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, President Clinton said he would be hard on the Chinese when it came to Human Rights. In fact, he actually ended up agreeing with the Chinese and repudiating what Americans have always believed about rights.

At the news conference that Jiang and Clinton held after they met, Jiang made the Chinese position clear. He explained the differences between the United States and China on the issue of rights by saying that the United States and China have different historic and cultural traditions, different levels of economic development and different values. He highlighted these differences by insisting that his government had been right to suppress political dissent because it threatened economic growth.

In making these arguments, Jiang was simply repeating arguments made by other Marxists and their apologists for years. At the meeting to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the Soviet representative objected to an emphasis on civil and political rights, such as free speech and elections, the rights that the United States had traditionally stood for. The Soviets criticized such rights as merely creating the opportunity for the owners of capital to exploit the workers and the poor. Much better was the system that prevailed in the Communist countries, he argued, where everyone’s basic wants were taken care of, where economic and social rights like a guaranteed job and medical care were preeminent.

Because the Soviet Union made arguments like these, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists both civil and political rights and social and economic rights. When the UN later drafted Human Rights Covenants that its members could adopt, it drafted two, one focusing on civil and political rights, the other on social and economic rights. Just before leaving for the United States, Jiang announced that China would adhere to the Covenant on social and economic rights.

How did Clinton agree with the Chinese view of human rights? When first discussing human rights during his news conference with Jiang, Clinton said “we appreciate the fact that human rights have been advanced in China by greater freedom from want, freedom of movement in career choice, and widely held local elections.” With these words, Clinton accepted the Chinese claim that there are economic and social rights and placed them on a par with political rights.

It is ironic that during the same press conference in which Clinton commended Jiang for visiting Philadelphia, the birthplace of “the beliefs that define and inspire our nation to this very day,” Clinton should wander so far from those beliefs. But the problem with adopting the Chinese point of view is not that it is Chinese but that it is wrong.

Clinton should talk to Eleanor Roosevelt about this. In 1948, when the Soviet representative argued for the importance of economic rights by praising the Soviet Union as a place where everyone was guaranteed work, Eleanor Roosevelt, the American representative, reminded him and the other delegates that “a society in which everyone worked was not necessarily a free society and may indeed be a slave society.”

With this striking remark, Mrs. Roosevelt revealed the problem with so-called social and economic rights: they do not have anything to do with freedom. Slaves have guaranteed work and a slave code might even guarantee them medical care of some sort but that would not make them free. That the Chinese are better fed now than they have been or that Cubans have better medical care does not make either freer. To the degree that a government or society puts an emphasis on economic and social “rights,” to that degree it moves away from freedom.

But the Founders who gathered in Philadelphia had another reason besides freedom to care so deeply about political and civil rights. In those societies like China and Cuba that give preeminence to economic and social rights everyone may have some of their wants and needs taken care of in a minimal way by the government but the greatest rewards go to the members of the Communist party not because they are smarter or work harder than others but simply because they are in the party. In societies like ours that give preeminence to civil and political rights, rewards are given not by the government to a certain group regardless of merit but by the free choices of millions of citizens in their daily business to those they judge to do the best work. The freedom that comes from civil and political rights results in the most just distribution of society’s rewards.

Freedom and justice are two powerful reasons to preserve our traditional devotion to civil and political rights and our disdain for economic and social “rights,” despite President Clinton’s support support for them. When it comes to rights, President Clinton is wrong.

David Tucker is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.