Sunday, June 9, 2013

A conservative conception of universal human rights: Does full human rights protection require an engaged social democratic welfare state?

The dialogue on human rights continues
Gandhi: "The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form."
This is the third part of a dialogue with Joel R. Pruce, a Post Doc in Human Rights Studies at the University of Dayton on the conflicts between a conservative political outlook  and a liberal conception of human rights. In part one offered a conservative conception of human rights rooted in the Catholic Church. In part two explored, although incompletely, Edmund Burke's conception of particular human rights versus abstract human rights.

Now, will address two questions that arise from Joel's observation over twitter that:
"A full version of rights-protection requires an engaged social democratic welfare state, which modern conservatives oppose.  Short of that, certain rights may be protected (civ/pol), but the rest are left up to charity and the will of the market. Certainly many conservatives are caricatures, but even Reagan/Thatcherites had a disdain for the state and for its expansion. Spiritual and moral 'conservatism' as you call it may be very compatible w/ rights, but mainstream political conservatism isn't."   
 First question that arises as a matter of policy would conservatives when given power undo the social democratic welfare state? Both under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher the social democratic welfare state continued to grow, although at a slower pace than Democratic and Labor governments respectively. Also it was under George Herbert Walker Bush, Reagan's successor, that the American Disabilities Act was signed into law. Furthermore, under George W. Bush the Federal Government expanded into both health care with a seniors prescription drug benefit and the expansion of federal government control over education with No Child Left Behind.

It appears that mainstream "modern political conservatives" rhetorically oppose some aspects of "the social democratic welfare state"  but in practice have expanded it when not creating new entitlements and expanding rights categories.

The second question that arises is to the degree that an engaged social democratic welfare state requires an expansive and centralized government does it pose a threat to human rights? Conservatives, not libertarians, do not have a problem with a strong state that is limited to its proper scope. Unfortunately, today in American discourse those voices are few and far between. At the same time you have those who have some conservative instincts but combine them with libertarianism, which is not conservative, as is the case with former Congressman Ron Paul and Senator Rand Paul.

History has demonstrated, in the case of Weimar Germany in the 1920s and 1930s that a powerful social democratic welfare state can become so powerful that when bad actors get into a position of political control it can be transformed into a state that can systematically deny human rights to an extreme never seen before and with horrific consequences. Barry Goldwater's speechwriter Karl Hess summed it up:  "Adolf Hitler as chancellor of Germany is a horror; Adolf Hitler at a town meeting would be an asshole." In a social democratic welfare state the opportunity for the abuse of power is great whereas in a New England town hall meeting it is minimal.

Mohandas Gandhi, a self-described socialist, was not an enthusiastic proponent of an expanded welfare state arguing
The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence. Hence I prefer the doctrine of trusteeship. [...] What I would personally prefer would be not centralization of power in the hands of the State, but an extension of the sense of trusteeship, as, in my opinion, the violence of private ownership is less injurious than the violence of the State. However, if it is unavoidable, I would support a minimum of State-ownership.

An aside, when Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 the Soviet press initially attacked him as a "reactionary utopian" due to his rejection of class warfare as violence and his doctrine of trusteeship.

 Finally, returning to Edmund Burke who observed that “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites." The conservative argument would be translated into modern terms that the more developed and responsive civil society is the less government is needed.  That this depends on the fundamental unit of political life, the family, being in good shape with divorce rates low and high percentages of two parent families. Now with the decline of two parent families over the past two generations in the United States the need for an expanded social welfare state is an unhappy necessity and a failure of civilization. The Catholic Church has a principle of subsidiarity that within in its catechism outlines the danger of extensive state intervention: 
Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which "a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good."
In conclusion, full human rights protection requires a fully engaged state but that does not mean that it has to be administered by the government. Now if society at large begins to fail then responsibilities that were handled in the private sphere may have to be picked up by government. The problem is that this raises new problems because the government is not good in doing many of these things and also it can lead to social atrophy which decreases social capital and leads to additional responsibilities being loaded onto the government in a vicious cycle that leads to a crisis of legitimacy for the government when it cannot meet its vastly expanded obligations. 

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