Individual rights, embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, have been an American ideal for 200 years and have been widely embraced in the rest of the world. The principle of rights has become an international standard of political legitimacy: even governments that routinely violate the rights of citizens find it necessary to cover up, make excuses or claim that their actions reflect a “higher” concept of rights.
In some respects, though, the U.N. declaration would have astonished the American Founding Fathers. They would certainly have recognized the first 21 articles, which proclaim civil and political rights of the type our own Constitution protects: life, liberty and property; due process and equal protection of the laws; freedom of speech, press and religion. The remaining articles, however, proclaim rights to food, shelter, education, medical care, retirement benefits, even holidays with pay. In effect, the U.N. was saying that people have rights to the services of an expansive welfare state.
In many industrialized countries economic growth has made those goods widely available and people have come to expect them. But an expectation is not a right. And “welfare rights” are radically different in kind from the classical rights enshrined in our Constitution.
The latter are rights to be free from interference by the state — or anyone else — in the pursuit of our goals, as long as we respect the equal rights of others. Thus my right to freedom of speech is the right to be free from censorship or punishment for speaking my mind. It does not guarantee that I will have anything important to say, or that anyone will listen or agree or that an editor will choose to publish my words.
Welfare rights, by contrast, are rights to goods, not to “mere” freedom of action. They are rights to be provided with certain goods, whether or not one is able to earn them. And that means someone else is obligated to provide them. When the U.N. declaration asserts that I have a right to medical care, for example, it does not merely mean that I should be free to contract with doctors, hospitals and insurers on terms that are acceptable to all parties. It means that my medical care should be paid for by the state, which means that taxpayers are obliged to support me, and health care providers are obliged to go along with the arrangement. Five years ago the Clintons wanted to impose controls on the entire health care industry — in effect to nationalize the industry — in the name of a “right” to health care.