19 September 2012

Romney Vs the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Everybody has either seen the video or heard about it already, a video captured Mitt Romney discussing  the 47% of Americans who do not pay taxes. He implies that those people are beholden to the government and are in turn Obama voters. Aside from his mischaracterization of the 47% (some include millionaires and elder Americans who tend to lean Republican), the remarks highlight how Romney defines human rights.

He says in the video:
All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.
The remarks stand in contrast with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25 reads (emphasis added):

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
Article 26 continues by describing the right to education. It so happens that the United States signed the declaration when it unanimously passed in the UN in December of 1948.

Many have been pretty fired up by the remarks from Romney  Ed Carr disagrees quite strongly on the rights point writing:
I’m sorry, but is anyone in this country seriously arguing that having enough food to eat is not a right? That access to shelter is not a right? That the hippocratic oath, and all that goes with it, is out the window? It is a national shame that anyone starves inside the boarders of this country. It is an embarrassment that people die of exposure in this country. It is humiliating to have a higher infant mortality rate than CUBA. Politics aside, shouldn’t we, as members of the world’s largest economy, all agree that this sort of thing simply should not happen, and that it is our societal responsibility to prevent it from happening.
Some say the remarks are indicative of a candidate who is out of touch, but it is hard to frankly know how much is honesty verses pandering. If anything, the ideas set forth by Romney are what is at the heart of the current US election: development.

From a positive rights perspective, the Romney remarks are in direct opposition to what most people believe to be the basic rights of man. What is at stake is trying to determine what set of structures will ensure that the maximum benefit on the greatest number of people. Some argue that benefits are maximized when markets are provided the unfettered freedom to operate. Others believe interventions to be necessary to correct markets and ensure that the rights of those at the bottom are met.

That, of course, is a crude summary of a pair of view points that are not always so opposed or so clearly defined. The comments made by Romney show that there is a significant audience who agree with what he said. Sadly, rights are not likely to become a part of the wider discussion. Pundits will talk about taxes, accuse Romney of being out of touch and discuss entitlement reform. The problem is that it avoids the important conversation as to what Americans believe to be a part of our 'inalienable rights.'

One can make a strong case that an individual cannot pursue life and happiness when unable to meet the basic needs for themselves and their families. The very same challenge exists in development. A divide in defining the basic rights of every person complicates the role of interventions in development.