Column on Democracy and Human Rights

Democracy and Human Rights

Tibor R. Machan

Tim Snyder made a very important observation on democracy and human rights in a recent piece for The New York Review of Books.
 He wrote, “As important as democratic procedures might be, opponents
of communism in Eastern Europe spoke more often of human rights.
 Without human rights, democracy can be, as they say in Eastern Europe,
managed.  And above all, to be free means to find that cool place under
the bridge, and remain there despite the current…” (“In Darkest
Belarus,” 10/28/2010) This point is crucial to keep in mind as one
considers the ways that individual liberty can be given its proper
intellectual support.

Among
some very influential thinkers today, like the Harvard University Nobel
Laureate Amartya Sen, the most crucial feature of a just community is
democracy, meaning the right of everyone to take part in the most
widespread discussion of public policy.  As Sen says, "participation in
political decisions and social choice  … have to be understood as
constitutive parts of the ends of development in themselves" (p. 291).
 And Sen holds that the legal order of a country is to be decided upon
by way of a democratic or national conversation.  The governing laws
emerge from such a discussion so there are here no pre-legal principles
in place such as those the American Founders believed in, basic
individual rights that all must respect and governments must secure.
Everything
seems for the likes of Sen to be open for debate or discussion and only
after this has concluded can we talk of constitutional principles,
fundamental laws, justice and the like. As he puts it,

Indeed,
the connection between public reasoning and the formulation and use of
human rights is extremely important to understand.  Any general
plausibility that these ethical claims, or their denials, have is
dependent, on this theory, on their survival and flourishing when they
encounter unobstructed discussion and scrutiny, along with adequately
wide informational availability (“Elements of a Theory of Rights,”
Philosophy & Public Affairs 32.4 [2004] p. 349).



       Sen does also hold that one’s right to one’s liberty is basic
but because public discussion would, as he puts it, “sustain it.”  Yet
any other rights, such as the right to private property that is so vital
to market operations and other elements of human liberty, or (one may
assume) the right to travel and such are not for him basic.  As he
explains, "There is a priority of liberty … but it arises from the
conviction that reasoning in public would sustain it…. I do [however]
disagree [about] the inclusion of property rights within the realm of
personal liberty…."  

Sen
evidently does not appreciate what the Eastern Europeans realized when
faced with communism, namely, that “to be free means to find that cool
place under the bridge, and remain there despite the current.…”  

The
right to private property, in other words, is the right that holds off
even the majority when the majority refuses to respect the freedom of
the individual.  As Snyder notes, anti-Communist dissidents placed the
emphasis on individuality, on human rights, because if these are secure,
one is free even from the majority.  That right–just as the similarly
basic ones such as the right to freedom of religion, of speech, of
association, and so forth–serves as the principle by reference to which
human beings are free in the concrete, practical sense that others must
obtain consent from them in order to involve them in their projects, no
matter how important to them those projects happen to be.  No majority
may override any individual’s right to liberty, including the liberty to
seek, obtain and hold property.  Indeed, it is such property that makes
effective independence possible in the midst of human communities.

The
reason democracy appears to be more important to some than are human
rights is that for the longest time in human history the vast number of
human beings were not “permitted”–the very idea is offensive–by their
rulers to influence public policy, which was something rightfully
resented and in time resisted.  But while this may explain the
popularity of democracy, it is no substitute for the more basic regard
one should have for human individual rights, including the right to
private property, the ultimate bulwark against tyranny.

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