Will Obamacare Become a “Human Right”?

If you want to get a glimpse of where the drive to make the United States into a fully European-style social democracy might lead, don’t miss a story in today’s Wall Street Journal that asks “Is Europe Guilty of Human Rights Abuse During the Crisis?”

The “crisis” here is the prolonged economic downturn starting back in 2008.  And what, pray tell, is the purported “human rights abuse”?  Did European nations start rounding up Jews again (or just bankers generally)?

Oh ye of little imagination, or familiarity with the Council of Europe, and its human rights commissioner, Nils Muižnieks.  (Of course the commissioner’s name would be something like that.  You were expecting Olaf Palme?)  The economic downturn has affected human rights because—wait for it—governments cut spending.  And some of those spending cuts reduced welfare benefits.  The report Mr. Muižnieks released reads in part as follows:

The whole spectrum of human rights has been affected – from the rights to decent work, an adequate standard of living and social security to access to justice, freedom of expression and the rights to participation, transparency and accountability. Vulnerable and marginalised groups of people have been hit disproportionately hard, compounding pre-existing patterns of discrimination in the political, economic and social spheres…. Economic policy is not exempt from the duty of member states to implement human rights norms and procedural principles.

To which the Wall Street Journal asks:

Will there be any consequences? Possibly: While the Council has limited power to change national policies, its best-known body is the European Court of Human Rights, which enforces the European Convention on Human Rights. The Council also enforces the European Social Charter, an international treaty ratified by 33 of the Council’s 47 members that guarantees economic rights.

People can bring complaints under these treaties to the Council – a transnational organization that includes countries stretching from Western Europe to Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkey – and governments are legally bound to abide by their decisions.

For example, Greek unions have challenged cuts to pension benefits as part of the country’s bruising austerity program. The European Committee of Social rights, the part of the Council that enforces the European Social Charter, ruled in April that the cuts violated the “right to social security.”

Not hard to imagine this kind of thinking making its way over here, and finding a sympathetic ear from the Obama administration and the judges it appoints now that the filibuster has been eliminated.

This is the natural conclusion of the deliberate and long-in-the-making confusion over the nature of individual rights the Left has carried on for decades.  (Indeed it can be said to go back at least to Marx.)  Never mind the profound and comprehensive economic illiteracy of the expansive European understanding of human rights; that problem requires its own lengthy treatise to answer.  (But start with Hayek.)

The fundamental political and philosophical problem here is the confusion of means and ends.  Harry Jaffa wrote well on this problem 30 years ago, in his essay “Human Rights and the Crisis of the West.”  A relevant excerpt:

“Human rights,” properly so called, refer to ends and not means.  Ends are not a subject matter of deliberation, means are.  It only confuses our understanding of what government ought to do, to treat means—however vital—as if they were ends.  The expression “human rights” refers then properly to the ends of government. . .

What then is wrong about placing desirable means among those things properly regarded as ends?  If, let us say, vacations with pay [which appear in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights], or free medical care, are extremely desirable, why not call them human rights?  One answer is that the number of things that human beings regard as desirable is infinite, and the resources to gratify those desires are finite. . .  To make medical care a “human right” means that it is not subject to deliberation: it becomes a categorical duty of the government to provide it.  This then makes the provision of medical care take precedence over any other good that has not been elevated to the status of a human right.  Resources might be diverted from, let us say, housing, food, or education.  But, it is said, let us make them all human rights.  To do so would be exactly like solving the question of scarcity by printing money.  Human rights, like money, are simply debased in the process.  There is no way that ends and means can be confused, without destroying the practical wisdom that ought to govern human affairs.