Just a few years after the storming of the Bastille in 1789, the French Revolution began to spin out of control, leading to human disasters all over France in the years that followed. Tens of thousands of people were guillotined for political reasons, executed at the order of officials who exercised state powers while disregarding the natural right to life for all citizens. Those who were executed were killed without due process, which would have guaranteed them not only legal protection, but most likely their lives as well.
Around that time, the British founding father of an ethical position labeled utilitarianism (“seeking greatest happiness for the greatest number of people”), Jeremy Bentham, wrote that the idea of humanity being endowed with natural rights is “nonsense upon stilts,” referring thereby to declarations emerging from both the American and French revolutions in which such rights were invoked. Today, more than two hundred years later, many people think that what Bentham said about natural rights is itself such nonsense.
We have changed our views on humanity during that period of time.
Today we esteem human dignity — the natural right to be free from arbitrary suppression and discrimination by state powers — considerably more highly than in centuries before. Not incidentally, the tragic course of the French Revolution accelerated this change of perspective.
Another milestone on that path is the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN on Dec. 10, 1948 — an event the world commemorates annually as Human Rights Day. This declaration resulted directly from the horrendous experiences of the Holocaust — the organized killing of more than 6 million Jews for the simple reason that they were Jewish. This was done through official state mechanisms in Nazi Germany during World War II. Today the declaration’s provisions are incorporated in most national legislations around the world.
The norms contained in that declaration mainly define negative rights, that is, natural rights which protect human dignity and individual life choices from illegitimate infringements by state authorities. They include the right to life; freedom of opinion and expression; equality before the law; non-discrimination on the basis of skin color, gender, race, religion; and others. They are defensive, hence “negative.”
The declaration also contains positive rights, that is, basic rights individuals are entitled to claim from their governments; they are mainly about opportunity and equal access to basic public services, including healthcare, pension systems and educational institutions. Equal access to them is a human right.
Remarkable progress has been made in this respect on a global level since 1948. Taiwan is an apt example for such progress: its social services have been constantly improving for decades. It seems that there is reason for optimism to assume that things will continue to get better on the human rights front, despite some appalling developments in permanently troubled regions around the world.
Recent publications, however, question the rationale of such an optimistic assumption. There is rising awareness that many governments have been managing their economies within the past decades in ways which reduce equal access to social institutions. This is especially true for the poor who are no longer able to pay for rising contributions which would keep them in the system. Many experts think that this development is politically no longer tolerable.
There have been intensive discussions on social and economic inequality for years, especially in the USA. Data show that for instance the richest one percent have been the sole profiteers of a policy which leaves citizens exposed – and vulnerable - to aggressive social forces driven by money-making. Is this the world we want?
Economics Nobel laureate J. Stiglitz’ irate book on ‘The Price of Inequality’ has powerfully described the harmful economic and political processes which focus on money rather than on people; they not only led to major global recessions, but also to a rapidly growing social divide that perilously separates the Haves from the Have-nots.
Other books have also fuelled such awareness. The most debated publication in this aspect is Thomas Piketty’s seminal book on ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ which came out in an English translation from the French last spring. This voluminous book is a fervent, but always magisterial philippic against a ‘financial capitalism that has run amok’. Its main thesis, backed by a comprehensive set of data, is that if wealth (or capital) of the people grows faster than the economic output of a country, then social inequality rises: An increasing financial return from wealth (stocks; real estate; dividends; etc.) diminishes relatively the financial return from labor (wages, salaries). The consequence: wealthy people get wealthier compared to those without wealth – the inequality gap is widening proportionally. This is what has been happening in the past forty years.
But Piketty also shows that poverty spreads in absolute terms as well. The rising costs e.g. for education or health care have not been compensated correspondingly by rising salaries of those less well-off. Enter vicious circle: Smaller income means less good education, which in turn means future jobs with less salary, which in turn etc. This trend, according to his prognosis, would intensify in the future unless politics interferes with drastic countermeasures.
A similar development toward greater inequality can be observed also in Taiwan. Unlike in other countries of this region the salaries of many employees here have been stagnating for years, despite high growth rates; trade unions supposing to protect the laborers’ interests are unfortunately almost invisible. At the same time the costs of living have been continuously rising, especially for products and services contributing to a better quality of life, which the Have-nots can no longer afford.
Article 21 of the Declaration stipulates that everyone has the right to equal access to public service in his country’; succeeding articles briefly mention social institutions to which equal access should be guaranteed. Since its adoption, these rather general statements have been refined in human rights instruments following the Declaration.
Admittedly, Taiwan has established social institutions of which this island can be proud of; there is more or less equal access to all to those institutions, thanks to continuously considerate welfare policies. Equal access, however, is unfortunately not always matched by equal quality for all when utilizing those institutions: the quality of the service often depends on additional payments you make – if you can afford them. Unfortunately, fewer households in Taiwan (and globally) can do so.
The medical options for instance offered when hospitalized teach you very quickly the difference between a first-class and a second-class patient. Or if education is based on an, as it were, incestuous examination system in which additional expensive financial investment (for private tutors, specialized cram schools, etc.) often makes a difference, then equality – or the lack thereof - matters.
One of the most influential thinkers on political justice in the past fifty years, John Rawls, wrote that social inequality is only justified if national policies are designed to help those who need help most and, at the same time, secure equal access to all public institutions. This thought comes close to one of the most essential provisions of the Declaration: Guaranteeing equal access to public services combined with equal quality treatment helps realize the idea that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Article 1).
Taiwan, like most other countries, still has a way to go in this direction. Commemorating Human Rights Day could be one further step on that never-ending journey.
Herbert Hanreich is an assistant professor at I-Shou University in Greater Kaohsiung.
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