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One human’s right is another’s obligation

In brief

  • Some human rights are highly controversial because they benefit some and not others.
  • Some “rights” are counterproductive, or beyond the power of a government to ensure.
  • Equality is easier said than done.

The human rights controversy

Arguments in favour of helping certain groups to advance social justice are often framed in terms of human rights*. For instance NZ’s Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt has argued, since 2019, that we should consider healthy homes as a human right, and the Commission has proceeded to act as if we do. Hunt isn’t an elected representative of the people. He is a public servant, selected for his political leanings, with some of the press choosing to amplify his voice.

If housing is a right, then if anyone doesn’t have good housing, the government is failing to uphold the rights of its citizens. While most agree that everyone ideally should have adequate housing, is it actually practical or even possible for governments to ensure this? What effect does free housing have on reducing the motivation of others to purchase their own?

To uphold someone’s rights under the criminal justice system, government need only act against criminals. That is hard enough to do well – and most people agree on what these rights should be, even if they don’t agree on the appropriate punishment.

Whereas with social justice, not only are these rights controversial, they inherently benefit some people at the expense of others who haven’t done anything wrong. “Positive” discrimination for some is, inevitably, negative discrimination against others.

Ironically, “affirmative action” intended to create equality is often at the expense of not only majority groups but minorities. For instance, minority quotas can create more discrimination when those who know the standards are lower for certain groups avoid people from those groups for being less qualified, even though some of them earned their spot without extra advantage. On the other side, those who were given a boost may struggle to keep up after being admitted under a lower standard, and end up being worse off.

All this centralised determination of supposedly fair outcomes requires bureaucracy that is costly for everyone. And there may be no clear benefit to the overall situation of even for the boosted minorities, let alone those disfavoured.

A claim for equality of material position can be met only by a government with totalitarian powers.

– Friedrich von Hayek

* This was codified at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights which declared social justice as a purpose of human rights education.

Other articles in this series

  1. Social justice is in the eye of the beholder
  2. Claiming the moral high ground with sacred words

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