n a visit to Canada in 2016, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, was questioned about his country’s human-rights record. Wang was ready with a response. “Do you know that China has lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty?” he snapped back. Defenders of Cuba’s one-party state reliably employ a similar deflection tactic whenever discussion about the island prison turns to human rights. “But,” they invariably retort, “Cuba boasts universal health care and 100 percent literacy!” Such earnest recitations of societal achievements are the Communist version of that apocryphal line about Mussolini making the trains run on time. That most European countries provide government-run health-care and refrain from throwing people into prison for criticizing the government proves that a generous social-welfare state and individual liberty are not mutually exclusive. (Some of these countries even have punctual train arrival and departure times, too).
The attempt to ward off criticism of a nation’s abysmal human-rights record by touting its provision of material benefits is, according to Aaron Rhodes, more than mere “whataboutery,” the obnoxious Soviet rhetorical trick that answered every criticism of Communist repression by highlighting the West’s own iniquities. In his essential and long-overdue book, The Debasement of Human Rights, Rhodes, a longtime human-rights activist, elucidates the pernicious ideology behind much of what passes for today’s human-rights movement. Since the concept of “human rights” was established in the wake of the Second World War, progressives of various stripes have conflated natural rights—those basic liberties endowed to all men by virtue of their being human—with “social rights,” which are basically just a plethora of welfare-state benefits. “The concept of human rights,” according to Rhodes, “has been swept into a broad river of campaigns for social justice, global economic development, environmental protection, multiculturalism, tolerance, access to water and sanitation, and more.”
Rhodes isn’t opposed to the government’s providing such social goods, but he wants us to understand them as “goals,” which are fundamentally different from what he terms “freedom rights,” such as freedom of speech, association, and religious practice. Goals are best approached through politics, which is fundamentally about apportioning scarce resources. How much money a society devotes to health care, pensions, education, or any other tangible benefit is ultimately discretionary and the subject of intense debate among people of good will and differing political persuasions.
Human rights, however, are not discretionary, or at least they shouldn’t be. Unlike the funds available for the annual Medicaid budget, there is no scarcity of freedom that we must apportion in a judicious manner. There can never be a valid reason to “cut” one’s natural rights. When it comes to the things inappropriately termed “social rights,” however, governments can (and frequently do) reduce the monetary resources devoted to their delivery, and yet this has no bearing on the basic freedom of citizens. If the British people, through their elected representatives in parliament, determine that the National Health Service budget ought be reduced by several billion pounds, Britain would be no less a free country than were it to maintain or increase that budget. The same could not be said, however, were Britain to implement a law on “hate speech” that punished certain forms of blasphemy.
This distinction between natural and social rights is not a pedantic one. The “inflation” of human rights to include the latter has equipped dictatorships and their apologists with the means of blurring the lines between freedom and unfreedom. “Because economic and social rights are realized only with adequate national resources and through gradual development, the presence of these rights in the international system has given the impression that authentic human rights also require time and funding,” Rhodes writes. And so a country that consciously fails to uphold a basic human right, such as freedom of expression, can cynically claim that it is “working toward” the realization of that right just as it is “working toward” the achievement of affordable housing for all its citizens.
“Human rights protect the freedom to pursue political goals, but when they are conflated with political goals they can be used to violate the rights of those who oppose them,” Rhodes explains. In this rendering, the existence of poverty in the United States is the equivalent of Chinese crackdowns on political dissenters: Both, after all, are examples of states not fully realizing the “rights” of their citizens. Wittingly or not, those Western do-gooders who speak of social and economic “rights” have provided the world’s human-rights abusers with the ideological ammunition not only to defend themselves from valid criticisms but also to assail the free world and undermine the very concept of human rights. Witness, for instance, the absurd spectacle of Olivier De Schutter, the concerned United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, who paid an official visit to the benighted land of Canada in 2012. As in all societies, some people in Canada go hungry. But unlike in many authoritarian states, nobody is actively denied food in Canada. Yet this fundamental difference is erased along with the boundary between natural and social “rights.”
Rhodes takes aim at three political systems whose advocates have abused our understanding of human rights to forward their own illiberal agendas: socialism, Eurasianism, and Islamism. The origins of the debasement of human rights lie with the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document included economic and social rights as a concession to Eastern Bloc states that needed the “illusion of upholding human rights” as they brutally repressed them. Today, the “post–Cold War human-rights dogma” that informs the views of most people working in the field “resembles the ideology of the states that did not survive the Cold War.” As for Eurasianism and Islamism, both insist on heavy censorship in the furtherance of their vision of a just political order.
Leading lights of the American left have partaken in the debasement of human rights. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2009, then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that “human rights are also the right to a good job and shelter over your head and a chance to send your kids to school and get health care when your wife is pregnant.” The consequences of such muddled thinking were displayed by Clinton herself that same year, when, on a visit to China, she said that human rights “can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate-change crisis, and the security crisis,” a statement promoted prominently by Chinese state media. Following an anti-American harangue by Cuban President Raul Castro during Barack Obama’s visit to Havana in 2016, Obama stated, “President Castro, I think, has pointed out that in his view making sure that everybody is getting a decent education or health care, has basic security in old age, that those things are human rights as well. I personally would not disagree with him.” If human rights include everything, then they will ultimately be worth nothing.