In all the questionable rhetoric about human rights, we have forgotten something crucial—that without property rights it is impossible to preserve and protect other human rights.
What are the human rights President Carter and others are so concerned about? Clearly, the human right to speak and write freely. This is the crucial human right that is violated by the Soviet Union whenever it suppresses a dissident publication, whenever it silences a political foe. Such civil rights as assembly and political organization are also among those of concern to people who speak out about human rights these days. The inability of people across the world to resist their oppressors in word and action seems to be the essence of the human rights outcry.
But this is only part of the story. The reason the Soviet government can simply suppress literature critical of officialdom is that it owns the printing presses, distribution facilities, and newspaper and magazine stands throughout Russia. It also owns all the forums, platforms, radio and television stations, meeting halls, parks, and other means that are absolutely necessary for people to publicize their ideas. It is of the essence of Marxist socialism that the means of production be collectively owned, that is, owned by the government. Private property is absolutely prohibited. Where some of it exists, in Poland, Hungary, and even the USSR, it is a departure from official political ideology.
Yet the right to own things, to acquire, produce, and trade in the means of production—buildings, machines, one's own labor—is the one right that few today fully recognize. Even in the United States this right is not recognized in law. Shortly after the birth of this nation, the courts and legislatures abandoned the view that individuals possess the inviolable right to property—that each person should be completely free in what he does with his life and productivity, his labor and wealth. This idea, very firmly tied to the American political tradition (which derives from the philosophy of John Locke), was superseded by a remnant of monarchy—the idea of the police power. States were seen by many courts to be sovereigns, whereas in the Lockean tradition only individuals could be sovereign, so that states had those powers and only those powers that individuals gave them.
Since these early departures from the original political idea, Americans have, from right and left, been denied their right to ownership. From the right, people wanted to force others to be temperate, moderate, concerned with spirituality, and so forth; so the police power was used to make others conform. From the left, people wanted to force others to be productive for the public interest, to keep clean and healthy, to bargain fairly; so the police power was invoked to force them accordingly.
By now the economic and related activities of Americans are fully regulated by local, county, state, and federal statutes. The power to control what a person produces belongs, not to the person, but to the government. Nominally, our own system is still willing to accept the idea of private property, but hardly any follow-up protection is provided. Generally speaking, most people now believe that no one has the absolute right to private property; the public interest, decided by courts and legislatures, warrants regulation, even confiscation, of private property.
When it is suggested by a few that this trend is closer to what the Soviet Union explicitly embraces than to the original American political idea, the reply is that there is a happy medium. This is sometimes called democratic socialism or the welfare state. These latter, however, are but degrees of what the Soviets have in mind—not so destructive of human rights, but clearly tending toward the destructive.
Leszek Kolakowski, a famous Marxist scholar, said in a recent interview for the British magazine Encounter that "historical experience has shown that in so far as universal collectivization of the means of production involves total planning of the economy (and monopolization by the State, not only of property but also of the administration of the economy), the inevitable consequences are bureaucratic despotism and oligarchic degeneration. In other words, these systems become incompatible with democracy."
Today many prominent representatives in the US Senate and House advocate the kind of total planning and supervision of the economy that Kolakowski mentions. And in fact, the economy is replete with statism. Businesses depend on subsidies and favors; labor pushes for import quotas; trucking, the airlines, and other forms of transportation are almost fully regulated. Of course, the roads, parks, beaches, forests, schools, and waterways are owned by governments outright. Although the networks run the broadcasting system of this nation, they only rent the electromagnetic spectrum (frequencies) from the government and are fully regulated by the Federal Communications Commission with Supreme Court approval.
By tradition and some legal impetus, most of us are still entitled to speak out in criticism of our government; although when businesses are involved, such criticism can be dangerous, since the regulators have immense power. It is no accident that President Nixon and other politicians have used government regulators to intimidate their "enemies." The Soviet system does this overtly, with no pretense.
In this atmosphere, is it any wonder that no prominent person mentions the one human right that needs protection in order for other liberties to be safe? President Carter would be exposed to the charge of hypocrisy if he dared mention the need of other governments to recognize their citizens' right to property—to freely engage in production, trade, consumption, etc. In America today, hundreds of individuals each day have their homes confiscated to make room for municipal parking lots; land is ruthlessly seized to satisfy political demands advanced by special interest groups; theaters are closed down because the "community" disapproves of what is shown inside; night clubs are run out of business because government officials find the entertainment obscene; homes are broken into because someone is suspected of being a pot smoker; and businesses are wiped out because some regulator has decided that their products might not be safe. Worst of all, no one in a prominent position objects to any of this in a principled fashion, grounding the protest on the recognition of each person's right to his or her body, labor, produce, earnings, home, business, etc. Neither the law nor the people in office recognize the human right to own property and use it in line with one's judgment even if others disapprove.
So how could we protest what the Soviet government is doing? That government disapproves of the poetry some of its citizens write, considering it dangerous to the public interest. That is exactly what our government uses to justify its violation of our human rights: the public interest, the national purpose, the common good. Since the Soviet Union embraces a political philosophy wherein achieving communism at any cost is the public interest, it openly admits to the subordination of human rights to this goal. The recently revised Soviet constitution makes this absolutely clear. In comparison, the US Constitution has been subtly, deviously overturned, so that the Bill of Rights just does not apply any longer.
The outcries of President Carter vis-à-vis the USSR and other nations are but empty noises without calling for the full recognition of property rights for every person in every civilized country. But is it likely that any official of a Western government, or even any prominent public figure, could insist on such a radical reform when the "liberal" West is almost as far removed from the ideal as those countries we otherwise criticize so vehemently? The day Americans could claim that individual human rights are upheld in their country is far behind us. It was this idea that helped America overcome its worst moral blunder—slavery. But few who speak for America in world forums remember this. After 200 years, America is hardly the radical new world those like I, who came to it from abroad, hoped it would be. I venture that many others who expect this to be a free society as they escape from their more overt and honest tyrannies will be disappointed. Yet it need not remain so.
Tibor Machan, on leave of absence from SUNY College at Fredonia, is director of educational programs for the REASON Foundation.
The Soviet Conception of Human Rights
As regards genuine human rights, historical experience has shown that such rights can be ensured only by the socialist system. The right to work, the right to education, to social security, the right to elect and to be elected to the government and administrative bodies of all levels, the right to criticize and control their work, the right to participate in the discussion and adoption of decisions, including decisions on matters of national importance—such is our socialist democracy in action.…Legal action is taken in conformity with Soviet law in the case of individuals who engage in anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation, designed to undermine or weaken the established social and political system in our country, or who systematically spread deliberate falsifications vilifying the Soviet state or social system.
—Pravda, February 12, 1977
…human rights are a social and class concept. There are no human rights in the abstract, in isolation from society. A right is an opportunity guaranteed by the state to enjoy the social benefits and values existing in the given society. For this reason the one and the same right (for instance, the right to education) has an entirely different content in different historical and social circumstances.
—Vladimir Kudrayvtsev, New Times (Moscow), June 1974
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Human Rights Hypocrisy".