Friday, March 11, 2011

Rights Scam

It's hard to argue against a notion as universal, and Catholic, as that human beings enjoy inalienable fundamental rights simply by virtue of being human, and Noman isn't going to.  He will, however, take issue with the smuggling in of political preferences under that rubric.  

Take collective bargaining, for instance.  Human Rights Watch thinks that movements afoot in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere violate international labor rights standards, which resoundingly recognize a fundamental right to bargain collectively for both private and public sector employees.  The Clinton Administration championed the International Labor Organization's (ILO) 1998 Declaration on "Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work."  And the US is a party to the United Nations' International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR--ratified by the Democratic-controlled Senate in 1992 with five reservations, and numerous understandings and declarations).  HRW notes that the "reason why collective bargaining is recognized as an international human right is that the compromises resulting from a process in which workers have an autonomous voice reflect principles of dignity, equality, and democracy consistent with human rights principles."  No argument there.

Back in the world of praxis, however, where context matters, Kimberly Strassel illustrates why the aura of the sanctity that enclothes human rights generally, and collective bargaining specifically, doesn't oblige reverence in the case of public employee unions.  "Government sets out to accomplish specific public priorities.  Unions, via dues, elect politicians who will agree to collective bargaining, and to shift those priorities to those of the union."  In a nutshell, the "fundamental problem with public-employee unions" is that "they exist to compete with, and undermine public priorities," and convert them to "a system that showers members with plump pay and benefits, crowding out state services and private jobs."

What Human Rights Watch doesn't acknowledge is that a process in which public workers have a dominant voice by virtue of having elected a like-minded party on the presumed "other side" of the bargaining table (something they generally can't do in the private sector context), and in which the party footing the bill for the consequent "negotiations" is left unrepresented, cannot be dignified as a "right."  It is an abuse of a hallowed practice, which violates principles of dignity, equality, and democracy--the very reasons why collective bargaining is protected.  It is a sham, a farce, a predation.

Leftist NGOs can cite all the conventions, declarations and "human rights" decisions they like.  They lack moral force because they are rooted in political strong-arming, rather than in human nature, eternal law and practical wisdom.  The fact that liberal US Administrations and Congresses (inevitably Democratic) sign onto them does not supply the moral deficit.  HRW favorably notes that the unelected Supreme Court of Canada had ordered the province of British Columbia to restore collective bargaining agreements that had been nullified by the democratically elected legislature.  It observes this--without a hint of irony--as an example of the way "most major advanced democratic countries" honor collective bargaining.  It contrasts Canada's Supreme Court to the Mubarek government's authoritarian control in Egypt.  Yet the contrast serves rather to highlight the practical similarities between strongman authoritarianism on the one hand, and progressive rights talk enforced from the top down on the other.  At the end of the day, some entity other than the people decides in either case.

Finally, Human Rights Watch invokes Wisconsin's traditional role as a "laboratory of democracy," and hails its history as an early granter of collective bargaining rights to public employees.  Noman says the left is going to have to accept the fact that the very people they hail have now elected to try a different experiment.  Having tallied the results from the prior one, they have opted to change course.  It remains the case that Wisconsin is a laboratory of democracy, as are Ohio, Indiana and any other state that prefers to govern itself in ways the left doesn't like.

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