Last week I went to a humanist event on Human Rights. There were two speakers exploring the topic of whether human rights are universal or not. One of them was a young sociologist who argued for a relativist position. While he said that he liked the idea that human rights could be applied everywhere, he thought that this was not possible as long as social conditions vary in different places. During his speech, it quickly became clear that he was a hardcore communist. He did not really talk a lot about human rights as individual rights at all. Instead, all he was talking about was how social conditions needed to be changed in order to produce some greater good. That means, to him it was all about the collective having rights rather than the individual person. Therefore, he thought that rights cannot be universal, they need to be adapted according to the condition that the local collective is in. At one point, he literally said that the idea of universal human rights can be in the way of social progress. I almost fell off my chair when I heard that. Yes mate, you have to break some eggs to make an omelet, right?

Of course he was not defending the communist regimes of the past. These people know that that would make them look silly. And no doubt, he thought of himself as a good human being, fighting for the right cause. Although he had just laid out the totalitarian nature of the communist program, he did not seem to be fully comprehend what his conclusions really meant.

The other person was a little bit better. He was an international humans rights lawyer and was indeed in favor of universal human rights. He argued that human rights are universal by definition. If we demand them to be universal then they will be. That was more to my liking.

None of them however really could give a clear account of what exactly human rights are. They basically seemed to go along with the UN human rights declaration of 1948. This declaration entails a mix of positive and negative rights. They were aware of the difference and both agreed that human rights have to contain some positive rights. Therefore, human rights are constantly up for debate and can be extended.

Libertarians of course understand that if you are asking for universal rights, these can only logically be negative rights. A positive right has to be provided by someone else. That means that the provider of the positive right clearly cannot have the same positive right as the recipient. If both had the same, then they would cancel each other out. Therefore, none of them would have it.

Positive rights also necessarily need to violate negative rights. You cannot really have both. A negative right is essentially the right to be left alone. But since a positive right needs to be actively provided, the person who has to provide it is not left alone and therefore loses his negative rights. That means that as soon as you start talking about legitimate positive rights, you automatically open the door to totalitarianism.

Since even the lawyer advocated positive human rights as legitimate, he found himself in the absurd position to argue on the one hand in favor of universal human rights in space, meaning applying to any human being no matter where they are. On the other hand however, he was arguing that human rights can change in time, in other words that human rights are work in progress. Considering that, I think it is fair to conclude that both were actually moral relativists.

Then came the Q&A. One older person, who I knew was a communist from a previous event where he gave a talk asked the question, whether people could be allowed to accumulate an unlimited amount of wealth. Needless to say that there was quick agreement among the speakers, as well as most people in the room that that could of course not be allowed.

The agreement did not surprise me. But hearing this question in this context being asked by a communist, I suddenly realized that there might indeed be something wrong with “accumulating unlimited amounts of wealth”. Talking about accumulating wealth does not tell you anything about the source from which this wealth originates. Surely, one cannot simply be in favor of wealth accumulation. Say, someone accumulates wealth by robbing banks, in that case that would not be acceptable, would it?

The economics model of a lot of socialists is that the economy is a big pie of wealth that simply exists. All we have to talk about is who gets how much of that pie. That means within this model, everything is a zero sum game. If I win, someone else has to lose. That some people in the room really seemed to use this theory became clear when the speakers pointed out that rich people clearly have more property rights than poor people. They simply did not seem to understand that property right is a negative right and has nothing to do with how much property you actually own.

If you don’t understand this then clearly accumulating wealth in any form means to steal something from someone else. If that were really the case, I too would be against wealth accumulation. On the basis of this theory, I can also understand why people think we need positive rights. Positive rights then essentially become negative rights, as they just prevent some people from stealing too much.

Of course this theory is everything but true. It is complete nonsense. Wealth needs to be constantly created. And creating wealth is not always very easy. Some people are better at it then others. But no one who creates wealth is stealing from someone else. None of that however comes out in the formulation “accumulating wealth”. If he understood economics, what he really should have asked is, whether people can be allowed to create an unlimited amount of wealth.

It would be interesting to see if people could as easily say no to that. Why would anyone be against creating wealth? Of course that still leaves open the possibility of taxing people who have created wealth. But once we are talking about wealth creation rather than wealth accumulation then the whole debate is shifting away from redistribution. Once you have the right model of economics you can then more easily argue why taxation is bad. Unfortunately, none of that was understood by most people in the room and so it ended up being a rather confused debate. But it was fun anyway.