Some of my academic work deals with international issues. As a result, I read a lot about the philosophy of human rights. It’s hard to read this literature without noticing the nearly complete absence of libertarian input. This post is my call for a libertarian take on human rights.
Libertarians are typically not very friendly to human rights. Many are skeptical of the practice of human rights, and particularly the institutions associated with it (think of the infamous UN Human Rights Council or its predecessor the UN Commission on Human Rights). But many are also skeptical on substantive or theoretical grounds. The practice and theory of human rights has become increasingly oriented toward so-called social and economic rights. Standard lists include human rights to fair pay, decent conditions of work, to social insurance, paid maternity leave, the right to adequate food, clothing, and housing, the right to basic health services, and so on. (These and more are found in seminal documents, such as here.)
The opposite is true as well of course. Human rights theorists and activists are not very friendly to libertarianism either. They think libertarians underestimate the importance of many human rights, including the welfare rights. They think libertarians underestimate the role played by international institutions in protecting people across the globe from oppression and abuse. And they want to continue the expansion of human rights to ramp up these protections.
This is not a good state of affairs. Not for libertarians and not for human rights. It’s bad for libertarians because the practice of human rights does seem to have been largely a force for good. And while the philosophical literature on human rights is currently exploding, there is virtually no attention to the kind of economic rights to which libertarians would be friendly. Few defend (or even mention) a human right to private and productive property. Few defend (or even mention) key economic liberties as human rights. A human right to fee trade? Forget about it.
As a result, libertarians are at risk of defending a vision of a just society that would violate standard lists of human rights. That is not a good place to be. The language of human rights is the world’s moral lingua franca. To say that something violates people’s human rights is widely seen as very strong condemnation.
This state of affairs is bad for human rights thinking as well. There is no necessary conflict between human rights and libertarianism. There are plenty of human rights that libertarians can support, even robustly defend. Libertarians are second to none in their defense of civil liberties, rights to personal integrity and security, and freedom. More importantly, there is a good argument to be made that libertarian insights ought to be taken more seriously by the human rights crowd. To give but one example: recognizing the importance of things we need as “consumers” (education, social insurance, health care) cannot come at the expense of recognizing the things we need as “producers” (economic liberties, private productive property, trade).
I believe that, over the last decade or so, libertarian thinkers have largely failed to show how their thinking can make a valuable contribution to human rights theory. This is our failing. We need to do better.